Chapter 24 - The Meeting
“What’s the harvest glow?” I asked while sitting down and leaning against the tree, dizzy from lack of air.
“It’s a lunar eclipse.” Riley slid down beside me and continued. “The full moon will turn a deep orange and this signals new growth for animals. Protectors have always referred to the eclipse as the harvest glow.”
“So, what now? What do we do?” I asked.
“You know what I’m thinking.” he said softly. “This is like the time I had to present myself as a suitor. I thought I would die. Now I understand what Shrealock meant when he said, ‘You’re quite popular with mortals and immortal alike,’ but I never imagined it to be true.”
“Riley,” I said. I took his hands. “Even in my state of mind before being healed by Shrealock, I read his thoughts. He said ’You, along with everyone else would like to save the world, yet no one individual can. If we are united, though, the task is quite possible.’ Then later, when he brought me back he shared his thoughts with me before leaving. He said, ‘The world awaits your decision. Once knowledge is spread, the world can mend. Trust the king, for he will play a greater role when all has come to pass.’
“He was giving me answers, Riley. This will be a task for you. You must spread knowledge about humans to the protectors. Maybe with their help humans like the Miserlains won’t harm our lands. We need the protectors’ knowledge of preservation and they will need our knowledge of humanity to find peace with each other. If they don’t try to accept and understand humankind, much will be destroyed.”
We sat under the tree for an hour as thoughts raced across our minds: What would happen if we accepted or denied meeting the protectors? Would our friends understand? How would they react and would we even survive?
“It’s time we faced them.” Riley said. “You don’t have to do this. I can go alone.”
“Are you joking?” I said. I stood and helped him up. “After everything we’ve been through? Riley, somehow this meeting is the reason you saved me long ago. Sometimes events fall into place, like pieces of a puzzle, and over time you can see a greater image emerge. You saving me and revealing yourself to me, then my longing for you and marrying you – it was no fluke. We’ll be together until whatever end awaits us.”
“Together then,” Riley smiled. “Let’s go back to camp and plan our next course of action, quietly.”
We talked by the fire for most of the night and tried to plan for any situation that might arise, favorable or otherwise. Besides making plans for our small alliance in case we never made it back, I wrote a personal letter to Sir Edward. The knot lodged in my throat made writing to him difficult.
From the day we first met I sensed your role in my life. It’s more than a friend, a guardian, or a loyal clan member. It’s something I lost long ago, by my own hands. I chose to kill my father, but that did not mean I didn’t love him.
I can only imagine the pain you must feel every day at the loss of Sara. Unlike my decision, her death was not your choice and I’ve felt your yearning for vengeance.
What I’m about to tell you will affect you above all others. I pray you’ll understand Riley’s decision for having the two of us meet alone with the protectors.
Last night, Riley and I were visited by three protectors and discovered that not all protectors feel the same about killing humans. They are fighting among themselves and some protectors believe that Riley can help. He has been asked to speak with them. I hope we can stop the plague by convincing the other protectors that what they are doing is wrong. By the time you read this we’ll be on our way to speak with all protectors. It could be a trap, although my senses tell me otherwise.
I know you and the others are fixed on fighting the green ghosts, but if we succeed, I’ll be asking you to do something you cannot fathom: befriend an enemy and embrace a race of beings that had once taken the very essence of your life away from you. Maybe peace can exist between mortals and immortals.
In the event we don’t succeed, I wish for you to lead the alliance into combat against the protectors. They’re close, east of the Barrens, I believe, and hiding in the mountains. If you gather the alliance and wish to make a stand, it will have to be without the King and me. Our future would have ended long before in a struggle for peace. Please, have Wolfe take control of our kingdom since he is closest to Riley and should be in charge.
On the other hand, if by some miracle we’re successful you must decide. Will you accept a truce with the protectors? Will you hate me for leading you into false hopes? I’m sorry to leave you and the others. Yet this action, along with searching for Riley years ago, does not raise any doubts in my mind – it must be done. I wish you well in life and with luck I’ll once again see the only man who has ever been a loving father to me.
Good luck! I’ll love you always,
If I had my choice I would have written a dozen letters, but I knew such an act would risk our secrecy if someone had found a letter too soon. I folded Edward’s letter and placed it into the inner pocket of his canvas bag. He would not miss a day to reveal the portrait of his daughter during breakfast. Long ago I inquired about the drawing.
“Is that Sara?” I asked one morning as we sat together eating breakfast.
“Yes,” he said. He propped the ink drawing against his bag. “Trixie made it when she found out I helped you after you were injected by the protector’s potion. The resemblance is uncanny. I don’t go a day without looking at her. It helps me keep my mind focused on our task at hand.”
“Are you ready?” Riley whispered, distracting my thoughts. We had finished our usual dinner of roasted rabbit and Sierrow root steamed in palm leaves, then distanced ourselves from the others. The sun was almost down and we rested on a patch of soft grass, watching the full moon begin its ascent.
“How long before the eclipse?” I asked.
“Not long. Look, the veil is beginning to cover the moon.” A thin strip of shadow barely touched the left side of the moon and we became immersed in the natural event.
“Hey, you two,” Wolfe said. He walked over to us. “Do you see that!”
The veil had stretched across half the moon and Riley and I spun around, panicked. If Sir Edward had joined us he would have read Riley’s thoughts.
“Yes, I was just telling about the eclipse.” Riley spoke quickly. “We were about to find a nice place to rest for the night, away from the fire so we can watch it.”
“This is really amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You can take our place, Wolfe.” I said. “Good night.” I kissed him on the cheek and we walked away. Wolfe wondered why we would leave such a nice spot to search for another.
A sliver of bright moon showed overhead as we waited at our destination. I clenched Riley’s hand while fearing I may never see Wolfe or the others again. We would be defenseless on our trip to the protectors. Not even my magic would be enough to save us this time.
When the moon turned a full dark orange the protectors Shawn, Tilly and Gene were standing in front of us.
“King Riley of The Land, what is your decision?” Shawn spoke first.
“We’ll speak with the others. Will you protect us?”
“We are prepared to help you by whatever means necessary,” said Tilly. “But be warned, some will want to kill you before you speak. We are going to block them from harming both of you.”
Our palms were sweating profusely, and I wanted to run away. To be led into a pack of wolves was completely beyond reason. Still, we saw the slightest chance for peace and were willing to sacrifice our lives.
“We’re ready,” said Riley.
Before we expected it, the three protectors changed into enormous birds, larger than the vultures from the east and less graceful. They grabbed us by the waist with their talons and awkwardly jostled our bodies with their powerful movements. It was so dark I could not see but later realized that they were not birds at all. Rather, the protectors took the form of an ancient flying reptile. Their wings were not feathered and their eyes were wide, glossy and black. Riley’s thoughts told me that the eyesight of the reptilian birds was so sensitive they could pinpoint an ant on the ground in complete darkness. Also, their stretchy black skin made them difficult to see by almost any being. The three protectors had planned carefully so the others would not detect their arrival. They had waited for the Harvest Glow to take us to the protector’s Palleo fortress, so I was relieved knowing we were not being led into a trap.
After an hour of rough riding I noticed rocks below and cliffs streaked past my view on either side. We were close. I could feel it. And with the bumpy ride and queasiness from the anticipated confrontation, my dinner spiraled downward toward the ravine. Is this what my Great Grandfather Christopher had foreseen when writing about the Bringer of Balance? How I wished to be in my bubble of comfort as I had been long ago. Where was the little girl who did not care?
My pondering came to a halt when Riley and I dropped onto a stone landing. It was square, about fifteen feet wide, and the two reptilian birds huddled together. Their wings covered us and Shawn peeked in between the stretchy skin.
“You’ll be safe here. Gene and Tilly will keep you hidden until the sun rises. Rest. We’ll wake you then.”
Rest? Was he kidding?
Riley grabbed me, holding me. He was shaking just as much as I had been. We could not rest but tried anyway. We sat until the stone cramped our legs then tried to sleep on our backs – I used Riley’s shoulder as a pillow.
“,” Riley shook me. “! I can’t feel my arm.”
“Sorry. Did you sleep?”
“No. I’ve hardly sleep since our first meeting with Shawn and the others. I really wish I could fly away, taking you with me. We’d disappear and live our lives where no one would find us.”
“That sounds nice right about now, but I guess we’ve changed. What happened to us, Riley?”
“I don’t know.” he said. “I never considered helping humans and protectors. I just wanted to save you.”
I sighed before offering my thoughts. “When I think of Governor McCook from or that Mayor Flanner, I wonder if it’s worth helping anyone.” I said.
“Being a protector once, I can tell you our efforts will not be in vain. Just saving you was worth the risk, so to think we could possibly help protectors, humans, and every animal on this planet, it’s…” Riley was going to say that it was worth our lives. He thought we would die. I did not want him to know that my outlook was just as bleak.
“Are you awake?” Shawn opened a small area between the wings and we saw a dull light shining in. My neck was stiff from the jerky flight and sleeping on the stone floor.
“We never really slept.” Riley replied. “What are your plans?”
“I have gathered the others and told them we wish to announce plans to exterminate humans. I knew they’d join us if we mentioned such a plan. Some protectors are outraged that the three of us would resort to killing humans and others are happy we have joined their view. They won’t expect that you’re our plan.”
Riley’s expression did not hide the fact that he was terrified. Shawn left us and we noticed he reverted into his immortal form. After more time had passed I heard numerous voices in my mind, the same as our last meeting with the protectors. This time it was Shawn speaking to the gathered crowd.
“I have asked you here to discuss new ideas,” he said. Riley said he could hear Shawn, so we listened to him address the protectors. “Many of us wish to destroy humans while others oppose it. We must unite, or our battle will distance us from the world we vowed to protect eons ago. I propose we first listen to my guest of honor, a protector who has traveled farther than any other – into the realm of mortality.”
Light streamed gradually between the folds of black and eventually the birds lowered their wings, revealing us to the stunned crowd of immortals. We huddled together while Tilly and Gene changed into their true form.
“This is an outrage!” boomed a voice in our heads.
“Is that the one that escaped?” asked another curious mind.
“The very one,” replied Shawn. Amazingly I could tell the personalities of each protector from their voice bouncing around in my head. “This is King Riley of The Land, and with him is his mate, his Queen. He has established himself among humans so well that he leads them across the land in search of us.”
“They want to kill us!” said another voice. “That is why they have come. We knew this would happen and it is all because of this one. We should kill them both right now.”
“We asked them to come here!” Shawn shouted in rage. “They are unarmed and wish to speak with us. Listen to them. Do not fear them.”
“That one, the female, can trap us. It came to the island and killed one of us when we were unaware. The female knows too much and is unlike the others of her kind. She should die first.”
“The other protector did not die!” Riley said. He stood in front of me in a noble effort to block the evil protectors and shouted, “He lives with us as a mortal man and has traveled here also.”
There was silence after Riley’s confession.
“This one is trying to deceive us. The other could not have survived. They are tainted like all humans and should be taken.”
“No one should be taken!” I blurted out my anger at the casual use of the word taken. “Protectors above all beings should realize that. And you’re wrong. Search our thoughts because I know you can. Riley cannot deceive you with his mind. It was you who took the other human form and dumped him on the Western shore, alone and scared. He was not banished, yet you found him sick and useless. You did not even care enough to help a wounded protector, so he came to us.”
“Why would that protector try to find you or even bother to exist as a human?”
“Because he wished to survive like any being who clings to life.” Riley answered.
“But why did you bother to help this immortal who had been killing your kind?”
“Because he had changed,” Riley said. “He was beginning to understand humankind and we no longer feared him. He has traveled with us willingly to help in our fight to save humankind. He sees what you can’t.”
“This is tedious. Stop now! No more stories of those who are sick. They must be taken – ALL OF THEM!” The outrage of the speaking protector hurt my head.
“We’re not sick!” Riley’s voice was fierce. “You’re too blind to see. Stop trying to kill us when we’re not sick. You don’t understand humans, and you’re not trying to learn about them. I spent ages following their kind and I still don’t fully understand what I am now. Ask humans for help in understanding them!”
A huge serpent raced toward us and Tilly transformed, snatching it with talons before it could strike. They turned into green mists. The attacker changed into a dragon-like form and flew toward us again until two smaller shiny dragons knocked it off course.
The battle between protectors had begun. Unfortunately, we were their target. My energy shield protected us, but there was no escaping the chaos around us.
The moment was familiar and I imagined Riley teaching Uncle Alley, our newest mortal protector, how to defend himself. I saw the conflict between them and that is when I foresaw this moment.
I suddenly clenched the box containing my seed of hope, it was in the inner pocket of my shirt, and I thought about Shrealock. My visions and his words of the destruction I posed on the world became clear, as though someone had opened a curtain before my eyes.
If we could not stop the horrible tangle of chaos raining above us, then my magic would break again, killing everyone. Lately, the visions I remembered stopped here under the bombardment of frightening creatures, the same as when we were trapped on the protector’s island and I could not see further than the sunset. There were no more visions beyond the battle in our midst. Our future depended on this moment.
Riley ducked numerous times as flying creatures bounced off of our shield. He shouted at the protectors, hoping to open a dialog with them and all the while, tension began to rise within me.
“Riley, come here. Hold tight and I’ll try to distract them.” I concentrated and part of the protector’s open arena had collapsed far away. The protectors ignored the crumbling stone.
“Try again!” Riley shouted.
This time I looked carefully at the area around us and concentrated. The curved basin of stone almost a hundred feet wide cracked at its base. The stone broke inward and I visualized the side of the mountain breaking in two. Then we heard horrible sounds of cracking and crumbling stone. Everything around us disappeared from our sight as waves of dust particles shot straight up into the sky.
“I can’t see anything outside your shield.” Riley said as the dust blew in swirls. Fortunately, it had silenced above us. We sat down and hoped that the battle had ended.
I screamed when a black mass smashed against my shield. The dust gradually settled and we could see movement in the sky. The protectors had not stopped fighting and doubled their efforts to attack us.
“What do we do now?” I asked, then stood up to view the scene from the edge of our platform. The side of the mountain was gone and we were trapped with no way down. I walked to the center of our platform and watched hundreds of transforming beasts in the sky. Riley and I were back to back and slowly circling until my head began to ache. The pain was too much, so I sat and rubbed my temples. It was happening again and I could feel jolts of pain stabbing into my eyes. The gaps I had repaired in my mind would not hold.
“I can’t take this, Riley. It’s the evil magic, the destructive side – it’s getting more powerful every second we’re here. It was the same for my father and my great grandfather. Whenever they saw chaos, fighting or war, they would gain more strength. It’s too strong for me and I’ll break again, I know I will. I don’t know how to release the magic without destroying the entire planet.”
All I could imagine was my evil purple mist exploding to the surface rather than the smaller vents I had mended when linked to Shrealock. Long ago I knew I had to kill father to save my kingdom, and now I must be destroyed before my magic ripped apart the world.
“We have to end it now before I destroy everyone. I have to drop my shield.”
“What? No, we’ll be killed. You can’t do that.” Riley kneeled down to me before continuing. “There must be something we can do. We can’t just give in and die here. I won’t let you die!”
“You know as well as I do that my time has ended. We have tried and failed to bring them together. We can’t be saved, not this time.”
We sat together in the middle of the platform and stared at each other while highlights from our past blurred together in a montage. Riley touched my face and I managed a tearful smile.
“Together then?” Riley asked and I released a few sobs before nodding to him. “I love you, Crystal.”
I clutched his neck and whispered to him. “I love you, Riley, my protector. Together, to whatever end.”
My shield was down and dust blew into our faces. We flinched when a flying beast passed just a few feet above our heads. Flying behind it were two winged serpents headed straight for us, but they were snatched in the air by giant eagles. Riley and I looked at each other, then sighed with relief.
The fly-by attacks drew nearer while creatures stopped them from hitting us just in time. Waiting for death was the worse feeling ever, and we held tight as more dust blew into our eyes.
Without warning, something knocked into us and we tumbled to the very edge of the platform. Flying away from the landing was the same type of reptilian bird that had brought us here.
A grunt came from Riley and I scooted close to him.
“No, no! Riley!” The talon of the bird had smashed into his face and sliced off most of his skin, leaving bone, teeth and tissue visible. Blood poured everywhere and I rapidly flipped his severed face back into place. I pressed hard to stop the bleeding. Then I did what was in my nature to do. My hands glowed and I could hear Riley breathing deeply. I mended his fractured bones then reattached the muscle, tissue and skin.
Riley stared at me, blood covering most of his face, and he spoke as though nothing had happened. “You know if you keep healing me this could last quite awhile.” I let out a nervous laugh.
He wiped the blood covering his face with his sleeve – my shirt, arms and hands were stained also, yet we did not care. We were together again.
Riley smiled, then kissed me. We savored the moment. If anything else had been poised to strike, it would not matter. The love we shared took hold and time seemed to slow down. Then I thought about our first kiss together as immortal and mortal. It was soft, tender and a new experience. Our feelings had not changed since that day. But something had changed. The attacks did stop! Green mists hovered above and surrounded us.
Our lips parted and I nuzzled my face into Riley’s neck.
“What is it that you did? And how are you not injured?” a protector asked.
“What? What do you mean?” Riley asked.
“The ritual you did when your faces joined? What does that signify?”
“Yes, tell us. What is its meaning?” said another protector.
“Oh, a kiss.” said Riley.
“What is a kiss?” asked a number of protectors.
“A kiss,” Riley answered louder. “Is the way we express our love for each other. A person may kiss to say good-bye, thank you, or it can be meant to show a greater love between two people.”
I moved back to see Riley and smiled. Those were the words I used to describe a kiss to him when we first met, but of course, as a protector he did not understand a kiss until I showed him.
“How is it that you are not hurt? You were attacked, yet you are well now.” The questions were being to come in droves
“My wife, Queen Crystal, healed me. She did the same years ago after I had been injected with the potion. She also healed the protector you abandoned on the west shore.”
“But why would she heal the protector if he had been killing your kind?” asked one of the numerous mists.
“Ask her yourself.” Riley stood and lifted me off the ground.
I looked around at the green hovering over us and responded the best I could to whoever had asked the question.
“He was not a threat anymore. I healed him, hoping he would learn about us. Then, perhaps he would help our kind.”
“And, did he?”
“Yes.” I said and sensed a type of gasp from the protectors. “That’s why we have been able to save a number of humans who had been injected by your kind. Without him we could not have figured out the source of your potion.”
“So, this protector, now mortal, is not a prisoner?”
“No,” Riley responded for me. “Not anymore. He is free and chooses to help us so the humans he loves will not be harmed.”
“Loves? What is love?” another protector asked.
“They want to know about us.” I whispered in Riley’s ear. “You were right! They are interested in learning.” I laughed and so did he. We hugged and knew the protectors were now quite captivated by our humanity.
I would never have guessed that a kiss could change the course of our world. It most definitely had, and we answered questions for the protectors the entire day. They absorbed our words expeditiously but still wanted more. We offered them the opportunity to speak with my small alliance that evening although rules had to be established before moving forward.
What will we do now? Heading back to see my friends was the only thing keeping me awake. Two hundred and fifty humans met by thousands of protectors would be risky. We would have to keep the peace between protectors and humans, and that task was now in my hands.