the protector of esparia (the annals of esparia book 1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Protector of Esparia

 

By

 

Lisa M. Wilson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All of the character, organizations,

and events portrayed in this book are either products of the

author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously.

 

Protector of Esparia

Copyright © 2016 by Lisa M. Wilson

Published by Dragon Scale Publishing

All rights reserved.

 

Other Books by Dragon Scale Publishing

 

 

The Dragon’s Champion series by Sam Ferguson

Book 1 – The Dragon’s Champion

Book 2 – The Warlock Senator

Book 3 – The Dragon’s Test

Book 4 – Erik and the Dragon

Book 5 – The Immortal Mystic

Book 6 – Return of the Dragon

 

The Netherworld Gate Series by Sam Ferguson

Book 1 – The Tomni’Tai Scroll

Book 2 – The King’s Ring

Book 3 – Son of the Dragon

 

The Exile by Eric Buffington (Coming Soon)

 

Dimwater’s Dragon by Sam Ferguson

 

Jonathan Haymaker by Sam Ferguson

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedication

To my children who are my biggest supports.

 

 

Prologue

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

About the author

Other Books by Dragon Scale Publishing

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

The sounds of clashing swords and the cries of men dying were closer now. Gayleena stared down at the newborn infant she held in her arms.  “Sleep on little one,” she whispered.  “I wish I had your peace.”  She swallowed hard, trying to slow her racing pulse and undo the twisted knot in her stomach.

“Blasted hair!”  Larone’s outburst caused the baby to jump, her little hands flying into the air.  “When this is over I’m going to shave it all off.”  

Gayleena glanced over to where Larone crouched.  A well-worn stellar map was spread out in front of him, its ragged edges curled upward from the polished marble floor.  He swiped at the long silver hair that fell in disarray around his face.  Sorrow swept through her.  The stately man should have been safely tucked away at the university, not here enchanting a pathway from one star to another halfway across the map.  He looked anything but stately now; his robes of office exchanged for armor and a sword replacing the writing brush.  His lips moved silently while he traced and retraced the astral course with his finger.

“Shave it?  Would he really?”  A lad, no longer a child, not yet a man, whispered at Gayleena’s side.

“No, Haesom,” she soothed.  The innocent query momentarily lessened her anxiety.  “He’s feeling the pressure.”

“Uncle Anton and I have finished setting up.  Can I hold her?”  The boy reached for the baby.  Without a word, she slid the tiny form into his arms.

All furniture had been pushed against the walls of the spacious room and an immense, flat stone now lay in its center.  A fist-sized crater in the middle of this stone held a blue, oval shaped crystal.  A vein of fine amber sand rimmed the crater’s perimeter.  Another encircled the stone. 

Anton, large and imposing, leaned against one of two marble pillars that flanked the chamber’s closed doors.  His normally ruddy face was drained of all color.  His frizzy hair lay matted against his head and neck.  With one hand he repeatedly tossed upward then caught a small vial of green liquid.  The other hand gripped the hilt of his drawn sword. 

Gayleena closed her eyes.  She forced her breathing to remain even.  They were trapped.  Her two uncles and her two, sweet children because of her…because she was too weak to run.  Only Larone’s healing magic had stopped the bloody hemorrhage caused by the birthing.  Then Anton had burst in with forewarning, just ahead of the attacking army.  Graesion, her beloved, never had the chance to hold their new little Shallenon.  In her heart Gayleena feared he was dead, yet the hope of a miracle still flickered in the back of her mind.  If only reinforcements could arrive in time.  Time…it had become their greatest enemy.  Had Graesion bought them enough time?  Would her uncle’s desperate plan save the children?  They should have killed Segal when they had the chance, but it was too late now.  Too late for…

“I have imprinted the course on the map.”  Larone’s comment pulled Gayleena from her thoughts.  “Are you ready, Anton?”

“Yep,” the big man pulled upright from the pillar and sheathed his weapon.  “The persite’s sittin’ in the stone.”  His booming voice seemed out of place in the somber room.  The baby twitched in Haesom’s embrace.

“Here.”  Larone handed the map, now folded into a small, tight square to the big man, then crossed to Gayleena’s side.  “I am sorry, my dear.  I wish there were some other way.”  He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.  “We will find the means of bringing you back, I promise.”

“So, this place where we’re going is safe, right?  You’re certain?  I only have a sword and dagger to protect them.”  Haesom said.  He handed his sister back to Gayleena. 

“Safer than it is here, my boy—that I will guarantee,” Larone answered.  “It is our sister world, apart in physical distance, but joined together in the Transmirian Sea.  After two millennia the passage is still intact, so the choice was clear.”

Gayleena looked from one uncle to the other.  “You’ve both worked so hard these last two days.”

“The portal’s ready to open,” Anton’s deep bass cut in.  He had placed the folded map into the hole in the stone next to the blue crystal. “Just in time, too.  N’before you go askin--yes, I’m sure I got everythin’ right.  Sure enough to bet the lives of the people I value most in this world.  Now come ‘ere boy.”  Anton held his arms wide.  “It’s time for good-bye.”  Haesom rushed to the embrace.

With a boom, the tall chamber door crashed open.  A bloodied soldier charged in. “Protector….Graesion… is dead,” he panted.  “We hold…the hall…but not for long.”

Gayleena felt the blood drain from her face.  The hoped for miracle died with this news.

“If my father is dead, then I will stay.”  Haesom stepped away from his uncle. 

“No!” Gayleena gasped.

“Mama,” Haesom’s voice was soft, but firm.  “The people will need me.  You
have
to leave…have to save Shallenon.  With papa gone, I’m the last Protector.”

“But, you’re only thirteen.”

“I’ll be fourteen in a week.”

“If you live that long!”

“Gayleena,” Larone broke in, “we can save him.  He can run and he can fight.  After you leave, Anton and I are going to the lower tunnels.  If we hurry, with those left, we can protect Haesom.  But you and the baby…there is no possible way.”

Haesom went to his mother and put his arm around her waist.  “Papa trained me, and I’m as good as any soldier.”

Gayleena’s tears fell in bitter frustration.  Her enemy had won, time had finally run out.  “Haesom…Haesom.”  Her mouth formed the words, but no sound gave them voice.

“I know what I’m doing, Mama.  I understand.”

Anton opened the vial he had been holding.  While pouring the green liquid over the map and blue crystal, he chanted.  “By the voice of T’Aalin, through the Expanse of Gonta, I call on the powers of Bree, to open this passage, through the winds of Malana, I call the Transmirian key.  By the voice of T’Aalin, through the Expanse of Gonta…”

Larone’s tenor joined Anton’s bass, but his words wove a different spell.  “The threads of love through blood generations keep us close though we be apart.  Of one family, of one mind, of one spirit, of one heart.”  The two brothers harmonized their voices in a melodic blend.  Never faltering, Larone reached out and touched first Gayleena and then the baby.  An almost imperceptible shock ran through Gayleena’s body.

The crystal melted into the green fluid, filling the crater to overflowing.  The folded map burst into white flame, its heat sparking the amber sand.  Each grain popped in the fire, releasing thin yellow vapors shooting upward to the ceiling.  Plumes of white and blue smoke spiraled around the yellow wisps, momentarily hanging in the air above the stone.  Abruptly Anton’s bass voice dropped further in pitch and Larone’s was silenced.  The three smokes slowly swirled in a clock-wise motion, their distinctive colors blending together, changing to ebony.  Round and round the darkened mixture went, picking up speed and expanding outward like the churning of a giant whirlpool.  A low-pitched whoosh hissed from the spinning air, increasing in volume and intensity.

Anton, continuing his chant, backed out of the way, for within seconds the massive, black pool of churning air filled half the room.  Larone, his unruly hair whipping around his head, stood next to Gayleena, his arms wrapped protectively around Haesom. 

“I love you!” Gayleena cried above the tumult.  She ran a hand through her son’s red hair, gave him one last kiss, then clutching the newborn child to her chest, bolted into the heart of the swirling tempest.

CHAPTER 1

 

Dreams

 

 

“Hey, Dad, I'm home,” Jessica called when she entered the brightly lit house. She knew he was still awake, reading one of his many medical journals or researching a new procedure on the internet. He never went to bed, no matter how late, until she was safely home.  She found it endearing yet highly irritating.

“How did things go?’ he called from the den. “Will the cat make it?”

“It was a dog, and yeah, I think so.” She began her nightly routine of shutting down the house.  Kitchen door locked, cupboards closed and lights switched off.  Television powered down, lamps extinguished, and window draperies closed.  She bolted the front door.  “Did you go downstairs while I was gone?  Anything down there I need to worry about?”

“Nope.  Haven’t budged since you left.”  Porch lights out, hall lights dimmed and cell phones plugged in.  She paused at the den and stuck her head through the open door. “I really hate these late night emergencies. Doc needs to hire another assistant.”

Her father smiled up from his computer terminal. “Welcome to my world.”

“You can have it.  I told you, this is only for the summer.  Much as I love animals, my heart belongs to the lab.” She yawned. “Cutting edge research is eight to five, not twenty-four seven.”

“Not for first year bio majors, however, your point is well taken. Sleep good, Jess.”

“Don’t forget the lights when you’re done.”  She tapped the switch for emphasis, blew him a kiss then headed for her upstairs bedroom. “Note to self…check the den lights in the morning.”

 

* * *

 

A chilling gust roused Jessica from her sleep.  She caught her breath at the unexpected cold.  When she opened her eyes, blades of slender grass came into focus.  It took a moment for the foliage to register and when it did, she flinched; for it was not a sweet herbal scent that filled her nostrils but the distinctive stench of blood.  Another gust brought smoke.  Fire!? 
She pushed to a sitting position. 

Gone were the warm comforter, the soft bed, and her familiar room.  Enough starlight filtered down through fissures in the clouds for her to see she rested on a grassy knoll.  Behind her, several buildings smoldered orange-red.  A few massive beams still stood here and there, like skeletal fingers rising upward from glowing ashes.  A partial moon, uncovered by the rising winds, momentarily bathed the landscape in its platinum light.  Jessica gasped.  Armor-clad bodies lay strewn throughout the surrounding field.  Several were so close that details of their fresh slaughter were easily distinguished.  Far away, the clashing of steel and the howls of men in agony drifted on the breeze. 

“Addex!  No!”  A man’s plea startled Jessica.  “Spare my family.  Daenon hasn’t ordered their deaths.” 

Only a few yards away knelt a man, his hands tied behind him.  Light from at least a dozen torches reflected off blood oozing through a wound in his scalp.  The sticky liquid matted his shoulder-length red hair.  A second man, his face partially concealed under a metal helmet, loomed over him, his right arm raised in a striking position.  He held a sword in the elevated hand. 

Without seeing his face, Jessica knew the unfortunate prisoner.  “Haesom,” she breathed.  She knew this man and his home that lay in ruins behind her.  For ten years, since the night of her mother’s funeral, she had dreamed about him and his family.  They had always been good dreams, filled with magical animals, wondrous places and kind, gentle people.  Her dreams, though not frequent, came often enough to fill a void in her heart, for Haesom looked remarkably like her mother.

Behind captor and captive stood a battery of soldiers, some held the torches while others detained a woman and two teenage boys.  Jessica felt sick. 
Not the boys
, she thought.  She had come to love them; their antics always making her laugh.  She had dubbed them Big and Little Red, for their hair was the same fiery color as their dad’s.  Bound by thick ropes, the grim-faced youths stood silent, staring down at their kneeling father.  Their mother, her blond hair disheveled around her shoulders, stood rigidly beside them.  She looked straight ahead, her thin, ashen face devoid of expression.

“Please, Addex,” Haesom begged again, “let my family live.  They’ve done you no harm.”  The passion in his voice stirred Jessica, but Addex appeared unmoved. 

The pounding of horse’s hooves brought a momentary reprieve for the condemned man.  From the direction of the burned out buildings, a rider galloped up the hill.  One of the torchbearers approached and whispered in Addex’s ear.  The executioner lowered his weapon and turned to face the newcomer.

The black clad soldiers sprinted apart; one narrowly escaping the horse’s hooves.  The rider pulled to an abrupt halt in front of the kneeling prisoner.  “Where is it, Haesom?” he demanded, jumping from his mount.  “Where is the Sword of Judgment?” 

The kneeling man squared his shoulders.  “That is one prize you’ll never have.”

For a moment the rider fingered a shiny metal hoop hanging from one of his ears then he began to pace.  The light from the torches danced off his polished armor at every sharp turn.  With his constant motion and the firelights flickering in the wind, Jessica was unable to get a good look at his shadow-filled face. 

The woman’s lips twitched upward into a tiny smile.  She looked to her doomed husband and slowly shook her head.  The movement seemed to have caught the interrogator’s attention.

“What about your wife and children?” his hand flicked in the lady’s direction.  “You know you’re already dead, but give me the sword and I swear I’ll spare their lives.”

Jessica’s blood pressure spiked.  He had lied.  She saw the lie leave his mouth and coil around him, a wispy gray tendril. Big Red cried out.  “Father, no!”  From behind, a soldier slugged him for his bravery and he fell, face first, to the earth.

“Listen to me, cousin,” the tempter baited, his voice low and smooth.  “I can show mercy to your family.  Give up the weapon and give them life.”

Time ticked by in heavy silence, until at last Haesom shook his head. 
“I know you all too well, Daenon.  You have never honored your word.  As soon as you have what you want you’ll murder us all.  Keeping the Sword of Judgment safe will be this family’s final act as High Protectors.”

Daenon growled.  “You and your pathetic duty!  It’s a piece of metal!  Would you condemn your loved ones for bits of gold and steel?”

“If that were all it was, you wouldn’t want it so desperately.  We both know its power.  No, Daenon, you will
never
have that prize.”

Daenon stopped his pacing.  He raised an arm and backhanded Haesom across the face.  “Kill them all, Addex.  Rid me of the House of Saylon.”

“No!” Jessica screamed.  Her dream had become a nightmare.  No one moved; no one appeared to have heard her.  She tried to run, wanting to intervene, but her limbs would not respond.

“Let the Protectors die,” the cold, emotionless voice of Addex cut Jessica’s soul like a knife.  Her eyes darted over the group.  All were riveted on Addex as he slowly raised his sword arm, all except Little Red.  He stared directly at Jessica.  Their gazes locked and for a brief instant the corners of his mouth went up in a slight, sad smile.  “Goody-bye”, he silently mouthed to her and a single tear slid down his face. 

Jessica sat straight-up in her bed.  Her breath came in short, deep gasps.
She pushed her hair out of her face and used her sheet to wipe the tears that streamed down both cheeks.  Anger, astonishment, and sadness rolled through her like waves in a churning ocean.  She had always let her dreams unfold by themselves, never trying to direct their outcomes, but this one time she had tried, tried so very hard and yet she could not control the ending.  She was certain Little Red had actually seen her.  Never before had anyone seemed aware of her watchful presence.  Overwhelming sadness filled her entire being.

A soft meow and a wet lick at her hand brought a measure of relief.  “Sneakers.”  She reached for the animal and stroked his soft fur.  Sneakers meowed again and rubbed his head against her hand.  His strong purr calmed her, brought her thoughts back into focus.  “I…I’m okay,” she said to the tabby, and releasing him, snuggled back under her comforter  The clock on her nightstand read 3:00 am.

Jessica tossed and turned.  Sleep came in snatches that were measured in minutes by the bedside clock…3:15…3:25…3:42.  Even her comfortable bed felt hard and uninviting, as if she were lying on a concrete floor.  “This is ridiculous.”  She rolled over to peek, for the fourth time, at the glowing readout, but it was obscured.

Smoke?  Smoke!  Smoke so thick it obscured everything.  Her heart jumped and she instinctively scrambled to her feet.  “Dad!”  She took three steps toward the door before realizing it was not there.  Nothing was there.  For the second time that night, her room had vanished.  She waved her hand through the white, enveloping cloud.  No, this wasn’t smoke.  Thin, moisture-less vapor swirled in every direction, shrouding the world around her.  The air held no humidity, which should have been present with a watery mist.  There were no choking fumes that would have come with fire.  This odd haze held neither cold nor warmth.  No smell.  No taste.  So light and gentle, if she closed her eyes her other senses would detect nothing.

The only illumination came from her very person, a weak glow, giving a few feet of visibility.  This phenomenon did not surprise her.  After all, she reasoned, dreams have many odd elements and certainly, for a second time that night, she was dreaming.  Slowly, she turned a full circle, trying to peer through the fog, but nothing opened to her view.  Even her feet and the firmness on which she stood evaded scrutiny

Once again, she passed her hand through the mist.

With the sensation of being in a sealed tomb, Jessica stood in the pervasive silence.  Unsure of the passage of time and with no change in her environment, she finally decided to move.  Unable to see the ground through the fog, her first step was tentative.  When nothing happened, she took a second step and inched herself forward.  She did not travel very far before catching the low vibration of voices.  Turning toward the sounds, she carefully continued on. 

A strange urgency to hear the conversation propelled her. However, with each step that brought her nearer, the haze thickened.  It became oppressive.  Sadness swept over her.  As if in slow motion, she pushed her way through the sorrow-laden fog.  She trudged onward, fighting back grief.  The effort was exhausting.  With three more strenuous steps she could finally make out their words and she fell to her knees.

“They are dead sir, every one of them,” a gravel-voiced man moaned.  “Even the boys were murdered.  I arrived too late with my warning.  I watched the soldiers drag each body to the kitchen well and throw it in.  From my hiding place I recognized all four.”  A sob escaped him.  “All is lost now…lost.  It’s only a matter of time before he searches for you.  He will destroy everything and everyone who dares oppose him.”  Despair filled the man’s voice and Jessica felt pity pierce through her own heartache. 

“No, Quirt.” the other man corrected.  “All is not lost.”  Deep and resonating, this voice inspired trust.

“But, with Haesom’s death, and his family, there’s no one left.”

“We have one chance.”

“Wh…What?”  

“Not all the Saylon’s are dead.”  The heavy sorrow eased just a little.

Jessica inched a little closer to where she thought the men were.  She tried to see the speakers, but the thick mist prevented her.

“It…It’s so hard to believe!  I heard rumors, foolish whispers, but…”

“Believe it, old friend.  Graesion’s family was not killed, but sent far away.”

“Where?  Why didn’t the Lady return?  Segal’s been dead for over fifty years?”

“Only recently has Anton found the means for a return journey.  This is ancient magic, volatile and dangerous.”

“An heir of Graesion’s lives.”  Jessica strained to hear Quirt’s whisper.  “What if he refuses to help us, to take his rightful place?”  Despair crept into his voice again.  “The danger…Protector Haesom had an entire army and defeat still came.  Does he know his heritage?” 

“I do not know that answer.  As with all Protectors, this one too will have to choose whether or not to take the position and all that goes with it.  Undoubtedly by now,” there was a slight pause, “the successor has discovered some unique gifts, but not a full understanding of their true value, higher skills will need developing at Ramadine.”

“Do you think Daenon suspects?”  At the mention of this name, hate replaced Jessica’s sorrow.

“No, and this is our greatest advantage.  If he thought for one moment another Protector existed, he would be relentless in his search.  Family is nothing to him. My nephew even wants my head.”

There was a deep, tired sigh.  “Quirt, it has been a long day and you have traveled far to bring me this sad news.  You must get some rest, for tomorrow I am sending you on another mission.”  The tone of his voice became firmer.  “This fight we will win, so do not be discouraged.  Now, I must contact Anton.  We have much to do, and our time is short.”

The glow around Jessica dimmed.  In the distance, the rumble of a faint, familiar purr caught her attention. 
Sneakers
.
 
Gradually, the purr grew louder and sharper, bringing with it a pervasive weariness.  Jessica could no longer sit upright and she lay down.  Closing her eyes, she settled into a deep slumber.

 

*  *  *

 

The morning sun streamed through the bedroom window.  Jessica sat up and rubbed her face.  She shuddered.  The dreams from the night before came flooding back.  Surely they were brought on by the grisly surgery she had helped with at the veterinarian’s office, she reasoned.  Yes, that made sense. 

Hopping out of bed, she ran to the window.  The morning sky was a rich shade of blue sprinkled with high wispy clouds.  She slid the glass pane open.  A warm breeze blew in, bringing with it the smell of lavender from the flower bed below.

Pulling on a creamy yellow robe, she noticed her mother’s picture frame on the floor beside the dresser, photo side down.  “Sneakers!” she scolded.  Gently she turned it over, hoping that the glass was not broken.  Haesom’s face stared up at her.  She froze.  The resemblance between this dreamed up friend and her mom was uncanny.  She blinked several times.  As she did, Haesom’s image faded and her mother’s came into focus.  With a shaking hand, she put the frame back on the dresser, then hurried from the room.

Jessica bounded down the stairs.  In the kitchen she found her dad seated in his usual place at the glass table.  Clean-shaven and dressed in a brown suit with matching tie, he appeared completely immersed in the morning paper, the Spokane Spokesman-Review.  Knowing the sound of her feet on the tile floor would bring him out of his inner world, she threw her weight into each step.  A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth and his gray eyes lit up.

“Good morning, Dad.”  She kissed him on the cheek, her long, red hair sweeping across the top of his head.

“Good morning, Jess.  It’s a big day today.”

“Yeah, I can’t believe it’s here.  After twelve looong years, I’m actually graduating.”  She reached for a sack of bagels on the counter.

“I thought you’d sleep in today; after that late night surgery.”

“No, I’m supposed to meet Melissa and run in an hour.  I also had a pretty disturbing dream last night so it’s definitely time to get up.”

“Really?”  John lowered his paper.  “How disturbing?”

“Well, I’ve told you about that family I dream about periodically; the one where the dad looks a lot like mom.”

He nodded.  “The Saylon’s. The relatives on your mom’s side that your subconscious dreamed up.”

“Yeah....well…they died last night.  Murdered, or assassinated.  There were bodies all over and blood and guts…it was awful.”

She tore off a piece of blueberry bagel and popped it into her mouth. 

“Dreams are funny things, Jess.  Maybe that surgery affected you more than you thought.”

“That’s what I figured.”  She considered telling him about the mist dream and seeing Haesom’s face in her mom’s photo, but decided against it.  He would only worry.  Turning back to the counter, she grabbed a small glass from the cupboard above.  “Now remember, graduation begins at five.  I have to go early, so you,” she shook the glass at him for emphasis, “need to be home by four for pictures.”

“Yes, yes.”  He turned back to the paper.

With the glass in one hand and bagel in the other, she sat down beside him.  “Well, I took a few precautions.  I talked to your secretary yesterday.” 

He looked up. “You did what?”

“Let’s face it.  Punctuality isn’t your strong point.  She promised to keep the major headaches off your desk until tomorrow.  All you have going today are some interviews or something.”

Sighing, he refolded the paper.  “Okay, I get the message.”  Leaning over, he kissed Jessica on her forehead.  He gave his tie one last straightening, then clipped on his I.D. tag.
Dr. John Ernshaw, MD; Director Medical Services
.

Jessica observed her father tenderly.  “You know, Dad, you really are in great shape for a guy your age.  If you’d let your hair grow out a little…no one would ever guess you were almost fifty.”

“Almost fifty!” he rolled his eyes.  “Don’t make me old before my time!  Forty-seven isn’t fifty…and what about my hair?  I happen to like my military cut.”  His slight staccato laugh made Jessica grin. 

“You’ve been out two years, Colonel, live a little.”

“I’ll think about it.”  He pulled his car keys from his pant’s pocket, gave her a wink and walked out the side door.

Jessica bolted after him.  “’Thinking about it’ always means ‘no’”, she hollered from the doorstep.  “Just be on time tonight.”

“Always, Jess.  Always.”

After finishing her breakfast, Jessica cleared the table and tidied up the kitchen.  While she was wiping off the table, the side door opened and a sweet-faced woman in her late sixties walked in.  Here stood the reason the kitchen, as well as the rest of the house, preserved its good order.  The owner of Barts Professional Cleaners had just come to pay a visit.

Sophia Bartlowski reminded Jessica of a Christmas picture she had seen of Mrs. Claus, short and pleasantly plump.  She removed a worn straw hat from her snowy white head, then placed it, along with a bulging purse, on the granite counter top.   

With a warm smile on her face, Sophia turned to her young friend and chirped with a slight polish accent, “Good morning, Jessie dear.”  She slid one arm around the girl’s waist and gave her an affectionate squeeze.  “Is your father gone already?  He works such long hours.”

“Yeah, he’s gone and I warned him to come home early.”  Jessica rinsed the dishcloth under the tap and placed it on the counter.  “How come you’re here and not one of you maids?  It’s not cleaning day it it?”

“I wanted to see you myself.  Tonight’s the big night.  We’ll all be there.  Rachel’s been counting the days.  My granddaughter’s very excited about being your roommate this fall.”

“What would I do without Rach?  You have no idea how I’m looking forward to the ‘U’.”

Sophia smiled, a twinkle of mischief in her brown eyes.  “Since you’ll be off on your own, how about a cooking lesson this morning?”

“Oooh, no.”  Jessica gave a hearty laugh.  “So that’s why your’re here.  Good try, Sophia, but you know how that stovetop hates me.  So does the blender, the mixer, and the oven, but I think the microwave and I get along okay.”

“I had to try.  I promised your Grandma Gaylee I’d make an effort to teach you more than just noodle soup.”

“But I like noodle soup.”

Sophia chuckled.  “I think while I’m here I’ll tackle that front room closet for you.  It’s quiet at home today and I need a project.”

“Well, okay.  But be careful.  The closet isn’t a priority.”

“Yes, I know, but my home’s in good order and your closet’s been bothering me since Christmas.”

A soft meow caught Jessica’s attention.  Sneakers sat patiently by the kitchen door.  “No, you can’t bring me a mouse today.  You know I hate those things, but thanks anyway.”  She opened the door and the big tomcat bounded outside.

The sound of Sophia humming an old polish tune drifted into the kitchen.  It was a happy sound that made Jessica smile.  She glanced at the calendar next to the kitchen phone.  The gladness faded when she read the current date.  Ten years ago on Saturday.  One trip to the grocery store and their lives changed forever.  Maybe that was why she had dreamed of death.  “Oh, Mom, I miss you so much,” she whispered.  Now she had only her father and her grandmother left.  Thank goodness for Sophia and family.  She left the kitchen and walked down the hall toward the stairs. 

At the end of the hall, in the front entryway, Sophia was busily cleaning out the coat closet.  Jessica paused.  “What’s Jacob doing today?” she asked.

“Hubby’s off to a small remodeling job.”  Sophia frowned at a stray glove in her hand. 

“I’m glad he’s better.”

“So am I.  I don’t know what we would have done without your father.”  She smiled at finding the glove’s mate.  “He never sent us a bill.  I can never do enough to repay him for his kindness.”

Jessica smiled.  “That's exactly how we feel about you.  I feel spoiled with your maid service keeping the house so clean.  And wow! From what Grandma says, I could be speaking Polish right now.”

“Escaping without Gaylee would have been like leaving my sister.  I’ve decided to have a big party in August, to celebrate our fortieth year here in the United States.”

“I love parties.  If you need help planning, just let me know.”  The grandfather clock next to the closet chimed.  “Oh, no!  Is it eight already?!”  Jessica glanced at the timepiece. 

“School?”

“No, my run!  Melissa and Clarice are going to kill me if I'm late again.”

“Like father, like daughter.”

CHAPTER 2

 

Plans

 

 

Jessica plodded up the driveway and shuffled through the kitchen door.  8 am was late for a run, but her friends wanted to sleep late and everyone forgot how hot June mornings could get.  After two hours in the morning heat, she was dog-tired.  She went straight to the sink, turned on the cold water, and leaned under the faucet to take a drink.  She felt her muscles screaming for a cool shower and then fifteen minutes of relaxation in the built-in sauna downstairs.  Strains of Elvis Presley came from the stereo system in the living room.

“I’m back,” she called as she headed for the basement stairs.

Sophia poked her head into the hall.  “Hello dear.  I’ve just finished the closet.  Did you have a nice run?” 

“Yeah, I did and now it’s sauna time.”

Sophia frowned.  “You be careful.  You know I don’t trust that hot box.  Someone’s going to get hurt in there.”

Once downstairs, Jessica flipped on the heat to the dry sauna before slipping into the bathroom next to it.  Shower finished and towel in place, she filled a plastic pitcher with water.  Balancing the pitcher while clutching the towel, she glanced at the sauna thermometer before entering.  It read one hundred sixteen. 

The initial blast of dry heat eradicated the lingering muscle tension that the shower failed to relieve.  She poured a little water from the pitcher onto the hot stones, then sat on the two-man bench opposite the heating unit to watch the water droplets dance and sizzle across the rocks before exploding in bursts of steam energy.  After sprinkling on more water, she stretched out and lazily gazed at the mist curling up to the ceiling.  The first few wisps vaporized into the warm air.  However, within a few moments the wisps condensed into puffs, then the puffs swelled, like marshmallows roasting over warm coals.  Amazed, she stood up and reached out to touch the small clouds.  A tiny spark flashed from her finger tip.  The clouds exploded.  Hundreds of pea sized balls shot around the room.  They doubled in size then doubled again and again.  A billowy fog quickly filled the closet sized room.  No longer moist, it swirled thicker and thicker around her.  Within moments it obscured the cedar walls. 

In the thickening mist all external light faded, but her body glowed, emanating enough light to see a few feet in each direction.  “Unbelievable!” she muttered. 
But last night was just a dream!
 

A low vibration, directly behind her, filtered through the haze.  Turning, she felt for the sauna bench and walls, but they were no longer there.  She took a few steps.  There was nothing to hinder her movement, so she hurried toward the sound.  Two men were speaking.  Like the night before, she felt an overwhelming urgency to listen to the conversation.  . 

“Larone, I’ve got it!  It’s all so simple now.” A man boomed in a baritone that was obviously unaccustomed to whispering.

“You have finished the calculations already?”  Jessica immediately recognized Larone’s deep and resonating voice.

“Yep, I have,” came the thundering reply.  “Alderic’s manuscript had the missin’ part, the persite factor.  I’ve wasted fifty years goin’ over ‘n over Tiard’s incantations, not knowin’ that white persite was the other Transmirian key.  Alderic’s writings fit like a puzzle with Tiard’s.  I needed both together.  Blue sends ya off and white brings ya back.  Did ya know these guys were brothers?”

“No.”  There was a gentle laugh.  “How appropriate, that two brothers unravel their work.  There is so much more here, now that we understand their dual writing…but that is for another day.  Tell me what you have learned.” 

“Normally spirals are tiny; poppin’ up from time to time.  They’re pressure outlets for the Transmirian Sea.  For instance, when ya lay somethin’ down and it just disappears…No one took it, it isn’t misplaced, it’s just gone…into thin air.  Well, a right turning spiral opened up and sucked the thing in, transforming it into an energy signature floating on the astral plane.  That much we knew from Alderic’s manuscript.  The new information is from Tiard.  He writes about left turning spirals.  They open up, reanimating the energy, and spit things out, no harm done.  Green persite makes the spiral bigger, lots bigger. And a map, enchanted with the right coordinates, gives the spiral a course to follow to where ever we want it to go.  You figured that one out, but this confirms it.  So, blue persite forces a right handed spiral spin, and white persite forces it left.  The right transports one way and the left spin brings ya back.”  He chuckled, a low rumble that made Jessica smile.  “We just got to keep our persite colors straight.”

“When you explain it like that, it certainly does seem simple, but Anton, do not minimize your part.  Deciphering the writing code was brilliant, and then perfecting the transport system…well, as you said; it has all taken fifty years.”

“Yeah.  I’ve pulverized more logs of wood than I’ll admit to in testin’ this out.”

“But everything works now, right?”  Concern crept into Larone’s tone.

“Yep.  The first rabbit I used came back safe and sound, so Varnack volunteered to go next.”

“Varnack!  You kept that a secret.”

“It was a quick trip, but he came back in one piece.  Um…he was unconscious for a day or so, but I’ve   adjusted the amount of persite so’s the tidal pull won’t be as strong.”  Here Anton paused.  “That persite is powerful stuff, ’specially the white.  I remember the last time we did this.  We just about killed everyone.”

“As I recall, we had little time.  The Demarian army crashed in moments after we left.  Sending them off-world saved their lives.” 

“Yeah, too bad I didn’t understand the persite better.  I could’ve sent them somewhere closer.”

“All ended well, Anton…As well as could have been hoped for.  Your incantation controlled the persite long enough to create a spiral, while Graesion bought just enough time to test it.  What you did was incredible, opening a Transmirian spiral and holding the portal long enough to transport two people through it.” 

“Well, I… Never…I…Graesion.”  Anton cleared his throat, “I’ve thought of him a lot.  He was as fine a man as I ever did meet.  Too bad we couldn’t have sent his boy through too.  He’d still be alive.”  He cleared his throat again, much harder this time.

“Haesom chose to stay, fully understanding the dangers.  He was an outstanding Protector, giving the people security and hope, and rebuilding the country after Segal’s defeat.  He will be revered as one of the finest Protectors Esparia has ever known.”  Jessica was stunned.  Haesom had been someone she’d dreamed up, a subconscious response to her mother’s death.  These men spoke of him as a real person.  But wasn’t this also a dream?

“That doogeroot!  Segal!” Anton choked out the name.  Jessica jumped.  “Segal began all this with his lustin’ for power ‘n his self-appointed godhood.”

“Yes, and now the son is more malignant than the father.  Daenon’s strength grows daily.”  Jessica felt a cold lump in her stomach.  She shivered, but not from cold.  “As the news of Protector Haesom’s death spreads, the people will start to lose heart.  They will rally to us for a time, but without a true heir of the Saylon family to lead them, they may lose their resolution.”  Larone sounded grim.

“I agree we need a true heir.  A power vacuum right now would be disaster, but,” Anton faltered, “but have ya considered how the family’s goin’ to feel?  I’d be killin’mad if someone took my kid.”

“Of
course
I have!  Do you
not
think I have gone over this a hundred times trying to find another way?  Another solution?  I’ve weighed the heartache of a few against the welfare of a nation.  I feel sick inside, yet I know, nothing doubting, that this is what we must do.”

“I’m sorry, Larone.  Yeah,” he sighed heavily, “this is the only option, I just wish there was some way of giving a warning.”

“Yes.  It would be nice to lay all the facts out in the open.  And, I will still do that.  No one will be forced to take on the role of High Protector, but the invitation, with all of its ramifications, must be made in person.”

Anton’s voice was softer now, “I’ll begin working on a return trip, just in case the answer is no. But for now, I’ve set up the trigger mechanism so’s it activates when someone with the right life force touches it.  Since I didn’t have an exact sample, I set it to any variation of my own.  Just family can set it off.  We don’t need any accidental day-trippers showin’ up here.”

“Well done.”

“I haven’t been totally unsuccessful in fifty years of tinkerin’.”  Talking about his project rekindled the enthusiasm in his voice.  “I’ve been workin’ on the fine details, like the size of the spiral.  Don’t need to fill a whole room.  So where do you want the key turned?”

“Someplace away from Daenon’s spies.  Ramadine is not safe.  I cannot explain it, but something is not right here. We need time to better secure the city.” 

Jessica stood transfixed.  This was too crazy.  She
must
be hallucinating.  Graesion.  Did she recognize that name?  She wished she could remember.

There was silence.  Were the men still there?  She took a tentative step forward, her body so tense, that when Larone finally spoke again she jumped half a foot.

“I think the Southern Greenwood, close to Ider Hoffle would be the best location.  How long will it take you to go there?”

“Hmmm.  Several days to Greenwood, but if I turn a half spiral, I can get there t’day.  There’s a meadow south of Ider Hoffle where lots of soft moss grows.  Enchant me a map and I’ll have everythin’ in place by midnight.”

“Half spiral!  You really have been tinkering.”

“A weaker spiral goes short distances.  Once ya get used to it, it’s kinda fun.  Do ya want me to stay ‘n wait?  Someone should be there.” 

“Agreed, but not you.  We do not know when the spiral will be activated.  It could be several days and, given the current state of national affairs, your presence here is mandatory.  No arguments.  Take Varnack with you.  He is quite capable of taking care of himself, and other than you, he is the only one I trust as guide and guardian.  He can wait as long as necessary.  Besides, my dear baby brother,” Larone added with a low chuckle, “the sight of you could frighten anyone back into that black portal.”

“Jessica…Jessica dear.”  Sophia’s voice came from worlds away.  Instantly, the mist stopped swirling and a blast of warm air hit Jessica full in the face.  She closed her eyes against the onslaught.  When she opened them a moment later, she found herself standing in the small home sauna.

“Jessica, are you still down there?  Are you alright?”  Sophia called from halfway down the basement stairs.

“Yes, I’m here,” Jessica called back.  She fumbled to open the sauna door.  “I’m fine.”  No she was not fine.  She was losing her mind!

“I’ve been calling you.  Why didn’t you answer?  Do you need some help?”

“No, I’m fine…really.  I was day dreaming…I didn’t hear you call.”  Standing just outside the sauna, Jessica took some deep breaths.


Are you sure?  Do you have that thing turned up too high?”

“No.  I…I was just off in a fog.” 

“Well, all right.”  Sophia sounded unconvinced.  “You’re wanted on the telephone.” 

When Jessica turned the sauna off, Sophia’s light footsteps receded back up the stairs.  She swiped the perspiration from her face then reached for the telephone on the wall opposite the sauna.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Reddica, it’s Mark.”

She paused before responding.  She hated that nickname and he knew it, but she was too rattled to argue with the friendly tease.

“What’s up?” 

“I decided to have a party after graduation tonight, my house around nine.  What do ya say?”

She was annoyed.  This was so typical of Mark, always last minute.  In the eleven years they had been friends, she never knew him to plan ahead.  “Maybe.  I’ll have to work it out with my family, but…yeah…I think so.”

“Heads up…I’ve invited Thomas Banks.  He’s off on a huge summer vacation tomorrow, but I convinced him he couldn’t miss my party ‘cause you’d be there.”

“Whatever.  Fine.”

“Cool.  See ya later.”

Jessica had butterflies.  She had kept it to herself, but Thomas Banks was someone she had been attracted to for years, though from a distance.  She had her group and he had his, and except for her buddy Mark, who was friends with everyone under the sun, the two groups seldom interacted. 

For a full minute after hanging up the phone, she leaned against the wall.  She had a headache.  Was she losing her mind?  She groaned.  Maybe she should call Grandma.  Grandma always had answers.  But then it hit her.  “I don’t have a thing to wear!”

 

* * *

 

Jessica glared at her open closet and the frustration mounted while the minutes ticked by.  The normally neat row of clothing was now a jumble of skewed hangers and dangling garments.  She had already been through everything twice, and a third pillaging would be needed before a final decision could be reached.  Glancing at the thoroughly ransacked chest-of-drawers, she knew Sophia would cringe if she saw the room, but she just had to find something to wear
.
  She couldn’t concentrate.