There were no visible stars overhead when Eena opened her eyes. Just a hint of dawn’s early glow reflected off a wispy sheet of clouds rising from beyond the cliff. It was impossible to see the sunrise, even though its evidence painted an edge of the sky coral pink.
The sound of movement caused Eena to shift focus off to her side. The fire was out. Ian raised up on his elbows and blocked the view of strewn ashes where an orange blaze had burned high only hours ago. She remembered chasing him around the fire like a crazed sorceress with a magic spell on her lips. Her eyes locked onto his, finding amusement in a return stare. They burst out laughing at the same time.
After a healthy dose of morning giggles, Eena wagged her head back and forth. “I can’t believe you actually had the nerve to kiss me to sleep.”
“You started it. And you kissed me to sleep too.”
“Only after you kissed me first. I barely had time to peck you on the cheek.”
Ian flashed a crooked grin. “Told you I was faster.”
(In your dreams,) she muttered in her head.
(No, actually, you’re always faster in our dreams.)
She was caught off guard by how he claimed her dreams as his too. Although, it was true they did spend most of their nights sharing the same visions anymore.
(So, what now?) she asked, changing the subject. She went to stand, but Ian hopped up first, offering a helping hand.
(I say we hunt down some breakfast. Or dinner, depending on how you look at it. Either way, I’m sure we slept through lunch.)
Seeing the crumpled and soiled condition of her dress, Eena brushed at a layer of dried leaves stuck to the textured chiffon. Ian swept his hand along the back of her skirt, pulling off a few stubborn twigs.
(You dreamt of Earth again.)
(We dreamt of Earth,) she said, correcting him.
He seemed to disregard how she revised his words. (Of all our days on Earth to choose from, you dreamt of the day we had to take that monster of a physics 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, loosely rolling his eyes. (I suppose after that horrible test, it was a good dream. Awesome football game—Knights 28, Eagles nothing!)
(It was almost as good as a mallawum match,) she grinned.
Ian glanced around at the landscape, 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, anticipating that she would do the same.
She laughed at his haste before kneeling beside him. (You must be starving.)
(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 of flora touched by her powers the day before, adding a dash more color and girth to the plantlife. In the process, Eena scanned for any fruit-bearing bushes or herbs sprouting from the ground. There were none. When she reached the perimeter 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 shrubberies was given more attention in hopes of berries forming on their branches. No such luck.
When she sensed the brink of a cliff, her energies shifted in the opposite direction. She was surprised to find the halting sensation of another 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 completely encircled 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 on 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 would eat a trillot if you were hungry 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 to wet our parched tongues.”
“It’s seawater,” Eena threw in as she plopped down beside her friend. “It’s undrinkable anyway, you complainer.”
Ian squinted his eyes at her—an implied scolding for the interruption—before resuming his grumbling. “This gives us maybe three or 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 would quit saying that. They’re not my friends.”
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. He gave her simple instructions. “Bury me in three days.”
“Ian,” she groaned, not the least bit amused.
“Okay, so don’t bury me. Just shove me off the cliff. I’m sure the tide will claim my body sooner or later.”
“Would you knock it off? Don’t slip into a foul mood.”
“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 begin to wilt along with his. “It was reality at one time,” she mumbled.
They sat in silence for a while, Ian with his eyes closed, Eena worrying down at him. She wasn’t sure if his empty stomach or his disposition concerned her more. When a rumble from his tummy hit her ears, she chuckled and poked a finger at his midsection. His reflexes were fast, grabbing her finger 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 to form a mischievous grin as soon as his eyelids slipped shut. “You mean I can’t push your buttons……like this?” She stuck a finger in the area of his belly button. By his reaction, she assumed she hit the mark. He rose up halfway, swatting at her hand.
“Eena! I am not in the mood for this.”
“What if I don’t like your lousy mood?” she said, giving him a good dig in the ribs.
When the taunted scrambled up to his knees, the taunter screamed. She tried scurrying on her backside across the brush, but no forewarning meant no time for a getaway. She found herself pinned to the ground, laughing hysterically as Ian tickled her without mercy.
“Stop it! Stop it!” she screamed amidst a fit of laughter. “It hurts! I hate being tickled!”
“I know,” he snickered wickedly. When the thought crossed her mind that she might honestly wet her pants, he let up. Aiming a rigid finger at her nose, he expounded on his previous warning. “Do not jab, nudge, prod, poke, stab, or dig at me again…..or I swear you’ll be sorry.” The strength of his expression kept her from cracking a grin. Satisfied that he had gotten his message across, Ian rolled back flat on the ground as before, both eyes closed at the rising sun.
Illusory flames flared up in Eena’s mind—the only defense against any psychic intrusion into her thoughts. Ian perceived this mental barrier and wondered what she was trying to hide. He glimpsed her rising to her feet, looking down at him from a short stride away. In a strict, forbidding voice, he repeated his word of caution.
“I don’t care if you are Queen of Harrowbeth or not, you’ve been warned. If you dare touch me, be prepared to run. And I mean fast.”
His words indeed sounded like a challenge. The only thing to wait for was the closing of his watchful eyes.
A split second after Ian shut his eyelids, Eena jabbed her toes into his ribs, making him grunt. She screamed and took off as fast as her legs could sprint from a motivated pursuer. Ian chased her through dry piles of underbrush that blew aside due to the swiftness of their race. Eena led him in circles, using wild shrubs and tree trunks as hindering obstacles. He was nearly within arm’s reach when she called on the nearest tree to hoist her into its branches. The tree responded to its healer’s urgent appeal, leaving Ian alone on the ground. He jumped as high as he could, attempting to grab at her foot, but missed her toes by a hair. The tree raised its healer up higher to a safe level.
“You’re too slow, too slow!” she taunted in a sing-song manner, and then screamed when Ian pulled himself up into the lowest branches, determined to climb after her.
Only one other tree stood near enough to call on for help, and it responded at once to Eena’s urgency, extending a branch within her reach. She jumped like a flying animal and was caught easily. Her laughter trilled a note of nervous delight when she turned to find Ian crouched on the very branch she had abandoned. How narrow had been her escape! Ian glared across the way, letting her know the chase wasn’t anywhere close to an end. He was on the ground looking up through the leafy branches before the young queen could even begin to descend 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 meant 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 those consequences cannot be avoided forever.”
“Foolishness?” she repeated with a hint 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 this foolish thing on a forsaken island in the middle of nowhere without any means of escape or assistance. Not wise.”
“But we’re not fighting—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 amount of 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 gaped. “I am not…”
“Listen up!” Ian snapped, effectively shutting her mouth. He pointed a stern 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 may show some compassion carrying out your sentence. If, however, you choose to remain the reckless fool, you will pay much harsher consequences in the end—as soon as you are captured and suitably bound.”
“Bound—and possibly gagged.”
Her wide eyes questioned his sanity for a moment. His offer was given brief consideration before she suddenly exclaimed, “Ha! Nice try. A true fool is the one daft enough to surrender to a lying enemy!”
Ian looked up through the branches, zeroing in on an anxious face. “This is your one and only chance for any degree of mercy.”
With worry in her voice she reminded him, “You are my protector, remember? You have a duty to keep me safe.”
“From others.” He smiled crookedly; Eena thought it a bit too depraved in appearance.
“What are you planning to do to me?”
Ian reached up, jumping to grasp the lowest limb on the tree. Then he started to climb.
“I’m going to get my hands on you first, and then I’m going to tie your arms behind this tree, and then I’m going to tickle you until you lose control of your bladder. Maybe longer. A lot longer.”
She screamed again.
When Ian heard her shout a desperate request, he became worried for the first time.
“Naga! Naga, save me!”
From out of the blue, two monstrous wings materialized, casting a vast shadow over the island. The tree that held up Harrowbeth’s queen seemed like a stick in size compared 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 argued. (If my protector refuses to….”
(You attacked me!) he reminded her. (And that was after I gave you fair warning. You knew exactly what you were getting into.)
She laughed at the great distance he put between himself and the beast.
Naga set down, shaking the ground in the process. His snout moved in close to where Eena was perched. She reached to pet it, amused by how his nostrils flared at her touch.
“Thank you, Naga. You saved me from certain torment,” she grinned. “Will you help me down?”
The overgrown lizard stretched his long neck forward, offering it to Eena. She slipped on, holding tight to his ears as he lowered her to just inches above the ground. She hopped off, careful to remain close to her new protector.
(He’s not your new protector,) Ian grumbled. (You know I would never actually hurt you.)
(That’s not the impression you gave me a moment ago.)
(We were playing.)
(No, of course not.) Ian looked up at the old dragon and spoke aloud. “You know she doesn’t play fair.”
Naga agreed with a single nod, snorting a puff of smoke that rose and twisted in the air.
Eena huffed a mock sound of offense. “How can you agree with the man who intended to torment me for no good reason?”.
Ian folded his arms across his chest. “Because he’s no fool—he sees the obvious truth.” What sounded like a deep-throated chuckle traveled up from the dragon’s throat. Eena frowned her disapproval at both man and beast before extending her hand to Ian, meaning for him to shake on an agreement.
“How about we call a truce?”
“No-pe.” Ian stubbornly popped the final consonant with his lips. His chin jutted out a degree, a decided sign of resolve. Eena dropped her hand, unsure of what to do. Naga couldn’t stay and protect her forever. She looked up at her dragon and then at the blue sky from which he had materialized. She broke into a full grin with her next idea.
“What if I can get you something to eat? Will you call a truce in exchange for food?”
Able to read her brilliant thoughts, Ian conceded. “Alright. Food—truce,” he agreed. He was very hungry.
Eena crooked her neck to look into the face of the mighty dragon and ask a favor. “Will you take us to go get food?”
(You’re supposed to command him.)
Eena threw Ian a grimace over her shoulder. (That seems rude when we’re the ones in need of help.)
Looking back up, she asked again, “Will you, Naga?”
The animal nodded his head before dropping low to the ground. Waddling forward, he positioned his back next to the young queen. Ian swiftly approached, 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. It proved difficult to reach high enouth to get a grip. Ian pushed on her rump until she could grasp a bony ridge along the dragon’s back. After that, it was a simple matter of pulling herself up the rest of the way. Ian straddled the beast with a little more ease, laughing in his seat behind her.
(You’re all grace, Queenie.)
Turning up an affronted nose, she argued, (It’s not like mounting a horse.)
(Evidently not,) he teased.
Ian wrapped his arms around her waist. His breath warmed her ear. “You might want to hold on.”
She shrieked when two taut wings flapped open, producing a reverberating crack. The echo was continuous and far-reaching, as if it would cross the entire ocean. Eena leaned forward and grabbed at Naga’s neck. All at once they were soaring.
The sky had paled since sunrise, gradually turning bluish-white. Only around the portion of sun still low on the water’s horizon did an aura of fading peach remain. The air that had chilled them through 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 clearer visibility. Once the initial stomach churning and fear of falling subsided, the ride became an exhilarating experience. Eena squinted down at the waters below, watching ripples flash by in a rush of striations.
(We really 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 help find food. Guilt would have been her worst tormentor had Ian starved all day on that island.
(You blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault. 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 rose higher in the air and veered sideward, both riders stiffened their grip. Taut wings rose and fell, pushing against air currents that forced them up higher still. Eena marveled at how thin and yet powerful those wings were, each one outlined with bony, finger-like extensions. They were beautiful and grand, enabling them to soar 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 make out 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 and pulling back his wings. His sharp claws dug into the soil, making a perfect landing. Ian slid off the dragon’s back and waited with lifted arms to help his queen down.
(Hurry up 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 when dried tumbleweeds lined the fences in masses. This place looked exactly like that, minus the fences….and the farm.
Ian urged her to get on with it.
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 and laden with plump, purple berries.
“Oh, yes!” Ian sang joyfully. A smile stretched his lips as he jumped up to go gather breakfast.
“Save me a couple,” Eena called out jokingly.
“I don’t promise anything,” he hollered back, jogging toward the nearest cluster of bushes.
Eena took her time strolling through the sand, headed for her best friend who was swallowing sweet, ripe berries as fast as his fingers could collect them. Every now and then his enthusiasm met a spiny thorn and he would flinch. A prick of discomfort didn’t stop his gorging. The young queen began eating from the bush beside him when she realized Naga was gone. A berry stopped short of her lips as she twisted her neck, searching the sandbar for their ride.
“Where did Naga go?”
Ian answered telepathically, his mouth full of berries. (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 looked to her just long enough to catch a sour expression.
(No, of course not.)
(Don’t worry about it. Naga’s fine. He’ll be back.)
A yellow sun took its throne in the sky while Eena and her protector feasted on berries. They strolled from bush to bush, enjoying a warm breeze that swept across the sandbar. 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, and she realized her musings had slipped into the past again.
(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 he proved on a daily basis that he did so nearly every waking moment. Her nosy protector already knew the answer to his own question.
(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.)
(Okay, whatever you say.) Truthfully, she had come to appreciate their connection as well as the special attention it offered her.
(So why do you think about Gemdorin so often?) He wasn’t going to let her off the hook.
Again she shrugged but reluctantly agreed to talk about it. (I guess I wonder what would have 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 hesitated, dreading her conclusion. (I would be Gemdorin’s prisoner right now.)
(No you wouldn’t,) Ian disagreed. (We would have found another way to defeat him.)
Eena’s brow creased with serious doubt as she reminded her protector, (Derian would be dead. Gemdorin would have finished him off had I not arrived when I did. And I would never have reached him in time if not for King Wennergren’s involvement.)
(Eena, that’s all in the past. The important thing is we prevailed. Gemdorin and the Ghengats are history now. Why worry about it?)
(I’m not worried about it. I just…) She paused to rethink what it was that truly bothered her about those past events. (Gemdorin told me that the dragon’s heart showed him a future in which he won me over. A future where I willingly chose to be with him.)
Ian could see how the idea repulsed her.
Her features twisted up uneasily as she admitted, (I just wonder what would make me choose to willingly follow such an unscrupulous person.) The torment in her thoughts, readable in her expression, caused Ian to stop what he was doing and give her his undivided attention.
(Ian, I never imagined myself capable of something like that. It’s hard to believe I could betray everything I stand for.)
He rounded the bush to meet her. Their eyes locked as he drew near—hers troubled, his resolute. (You didn’t betray the things you stand for, Eena. You wouldn’t; you’re not that way.)
(According to the dragon’s heart, I would have. I would have voluntarily followed Gemdorin.)
(No,) Ian insisted. (Not you—never.)
(Ian, it was foreseen by the dragon’s heart. You’re not even considering the likelihood…)
He interrupted, loud and adamant. (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 at him straight on, seeing fire behind his stare. His nostrils flared 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 her shoulders. (Stop with the what-ifs! That’s not a decision you’ll ever have to make, Eena. Gemdorin is dead. He’s gone, beaten, finished, croaked, okay? He’s not coming back for you.)
Seeing his eyeballs grow as wide as saucers, still wildly ablaze, Eena was sorry for saying 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 he 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 as he contemplated their limited options. What did they have that could be used as a container? His lips grinned crookedly when an idea formed in his head.
“How attached are you to that dress?” he asked.
She slapped her hands down over her skirt. “You are 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 material 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 protector found his head buried beneath layers of underskirt.
“Criminy, Eena!” he griped, shoving the material off his face to find her scowling at him.
“You could give a girl some warning,” she grumbled.
“Alright, alright.” He wadded up the hem to grasp at it more securely. “Are you ready now?”
She held on tight to his shoulders. “Ready.”
He had to administer two good yanks before they heard the material rip partially free. Eena twirled around as Ian tore at the rest, pulling the undergarment away from the other layers. When the slip finally fell loose, she stepped outside of it. Ian began ripping the cloth into five long strips. The remainder of the material he used to create four square blocks. Two he gave to Eena and two he kept for himself.
“Fill 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, and grinned when Ian rolled his eyes.
It was awkward trying to cup a cloth in one hand and pick fruit with the other. They soon realized the task was easier done with four hands rather than two. Within a short time, they developed an effective system. Ian rounded 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. Once they successfully filled all four squares to capacity, Ian knotted each bag together using 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 still had not returned, so they walked barefoot along the beach to pass the time. Eena waded out up to her ankles in seawater. Ian finally set down his bundle of berries, at Eena’s insistence, and began scooting a pebble over the sand with his toes, kicking it in front of him across the compact sand; Eena had insisted he remove his shoes too. She watched him kick the pebble over and over again, keeping it constantly in his path. When he reached down to pick it up and toss it out to sea, her mind returned to Wanyaka Cave.
“Hey,” she stopped and turned to him. “Did you retrieve the Kritz?”
“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 deliberate 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 had been kicking around. Eena’s eyes lit up.
(How do you read it?)
(You can read it a couple different ways.) Ian pushed on a central circle, causing the device to puff into a ball. Instead of pressing a certain sequence of buttons as he had done previously when putting the device to work, he twisted the center portion halfway around. A faint “click” preceded the opening of two flaps on the top half. It looked like a fat lady bug with raised wings.
(Cool,) Eena breathed.
(You can connect this directly to a computer and download the results. It’s easier to analyze on a larger screen. However—) He pointed to a small black square inside the device. (You can access the results on this tiny display here too.)
Eena peered in closer and discovered a white script running across a flat, dark sphere. It was very small, but readable.
(What does it say?) she asked.
Ian rambled through the information, 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 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 the bodies of Ishtura and Anesidora are sealed.)
It was clear what that meant. (The gem that imprisons 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.)
(It has to be the gem,) Eena decided. (But how can this help us?)
A beastly roar carried on 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 mismatched eyes of a mighty dragon.
“Naga!” Eena cried happily. She ran to him, splashing up seawater 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 to the cliffs?)
(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.
(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.)
(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 to the ground. 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. The syrupy, purple liquid oozed from the cloth, splattering on her dress.
“Oh, ick, Ian!” she complained. 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 protested when he set the bags directly at her back. She groaned, knowing her tawny dress was undoubtedly soiled beyond washing.
(We can dye the whole thing purple,) Ian joked.
(It’s not supposed to be purple. You’ve totally ruined my dress.)
(Hey, you’ll thank me later when you’re starving.)
(Yeah, well, you’ll regret this later when Derian finds out you’re the one who stained my favorite dress.)
(I’m not the least bit worried, Queenie. Derian likes purple.)Naga stood up to his full height and spread his dragon wings wide enough to span the width of the sandbar. A few powerful flaps in the breeze put them high in the sky, soaring above ocean waters again.