CHAPTER ONE Incarceration
THE DRAGONPANTHER ROEBOR NEEDED SHANNON KENDRICKS’ HELP, but exactly what help for what trouble, Shannon had yet to learn, and she needed to find out now.
She’d left Earth moments ago through a portal to RiverWorld with her cat Narcissus in her arms and the hummingbird-sized, kitten-shaped alien, Salesti, by her side. They tumbled into the cave of portals.
“Okay, Salesti, time to tell us what’s happened to Roebor. Is he—”
Before Shannon could finish her question, Salesti dived into another portal: the one to Roebor’s home on FireWorld. “Wait—”
But Salesti disappeared in a blazing flash of white flame. Shannon cursed under her breath and followed.
In an instant, she fell out of the portal onto FireWorld’s smooth, pink-gold rock cliffs. She rolled, jumped up, and scanned in every direction for unfriendly dragonpanthers as she rubbed her rock-bruised shin.
Dragonpanthers, as large as houses, featured brightly-colored metallic fur and wings longer than oak trees. She wouldn't overlook one. Seeing nothing, she scurried to a group of boulders of the same pink-gold, crouched behind the largest, and caught her breath.
“Stay close to me, Narci. We don’t know what’s going on here.”
Salesti, who was from RiverWorld, awaited Shannon in the bright, cold, morning sunshine, and buzzed its way to her hiding place.
“Now, please tell us why you brought us here, Salesti. Are we in friendly territory or not?”
She kept a close eye on the landscape in all directions while she waited for Salesti to speak.
not, Salesti said.
The tiny alien buzzed to the top of the tallest boulder and peeked at the landscape.
Behind them, a sheer cliff dropped hundreds of feet to a vast sea covered in fire. The flames burned the same silver-blue that lit her friend Roebor’s blazing eyes, the same silver-blue fire he could blow from his lungs to such devastating effect.
The roar of the fire—steady, menacing, a constant warning: do not come near, or you will burn—carried all the way from the sea to the rock outcropping where she crouched. Shannon unzipped her lightweight sweatshirt. Cooler air could reach her already-damp T-shirt.
“Salesti? What do you mean, we’re not in friendly territory?”
dangerous territory, said Salesti.
“Dangerous because of the dragonpanthers or because the dragonpanthers are under attack?”
Beyond their outcropping of boulders, the land eased upward toward the next range of pink-gold cliffs a half-mile away. Hundreds of cave entrances peppered the cliff face from top to bottom.
She crouched lower behind the boulder.
dragonpanthers unfriendly to roebor.
“Why? What do they have against Roebor?”
Salesti buzzed—its anxious buzz, not the cheerful one—and Narci glanced at the sky; her sapphire eyes grew even larger than usual. Shannon followed Narci’s gaze. A group of about twenty dragonpanthers flew high over their heads. Long necks craned, and silver-blue eyes glared at them. Two peeled off from the rest and descended.
“Odin’s eye,” Shannon said, in tribute to her beloved Norse grandmother. “Should I worry now, Salesti?”
yes, shannon worries now.
The rest of the dragonpanthers flew in a double V formation around the corner of the cliff to the left and disappeared. The two descending creatures swooped in and came to rest next to Shannon’s hiding place, their great wings humming on the wind and folding inward like umbrellas next to their bodies as they settled.
“Salesti? Narci?” Shannon whispered. “You two duck under those rocks at the far end and stay there. No matter what.” Narci’s black fur would blend with the dark recesses between the stones, and Salesti could nestle beneath her.
Salesti and Narcissus disappeared into the shadows where three boulders leaned together.
Shannon pulled her silver-blonde braid over one shoulder and ran shaking fingers down to its tip. She tried and failed to stop the trembling in her legs as the two giant creatures stamped toward her—heads lowered, silver-blue eyes blazing.
Their golden fur shone in the brilliant light of the two suns rising behind them in the morning sky. The smaller of the two remained a step back as the other brought his face close to hers. Shannon stood her ground.
Please be friendly to tiny, squishable humans.
“It’s one of those puny Earth things,” said the nearer creature. “I recognize it from Roebor’s artwork.”
“Are you sure?” the other asked. “We’ve never had one visit here.”
The larger one sniffed at her. “She carries a peculiar scent. I’ve never smelled anything like it. Come and smell.”
The second dragonpanther stepped forward, leaned his enormous face in, and sniffed.
“I like that. Unusual. And check out her eyes—they do not carry fire like ours, and instead of our slits of blue, they are round and green. Fascinating.”
Shannon did smell of perfume, an exotic, spice-filled, alien-made scent that never left her. The two dragonpanthers smelled as well; their scent reminded Shannon of pack rides on gentle horses in summers long past.
“Can you understand me? Are you from Earth?” The first one asked, his hot and rancid breath in Shannon’s face.
Although dragonpanthers communicated without speaking, Shannon understood them; she’d become telepathic herself during the Alien Troubles six years before, catching images and emotions before they became a language.
Shannon coughed under the onslaught of their breath. “Yes, I’m from Earth. My name is Shannon Kendricks. I came here to learn what happened to my friend Roebor.”
The bigger dragonpanther reared back and growled. “No friend of Roebor will find welcome here.”
No, not friendly to tiny, squishable human Shannon.
One of the dragonpanther’s huge front paws whipped out. He wrapped his long toes—more like fingers in length and dexterity—around Shannon’s body and flapped his great, bat-like wings to lift him far enough off the ground, so she dangled beneath him. There he hovered.
Not good. Not good. Not good.
Shannon struggled in his grasp; he tightened his fist.
“What are you doing, Bale? Why don’t you send her on her way and be done with her?” asked the second creature.
“No, Pak!” Bale said and growled again. “A friend of Father’s murderer will satisfy me of her innocence before she may leave.”
They must be talking about Tidak. That couldn’t be good.
“Tell you what, my brother. We will consult with the Council,” Pak said. “But what can we do with her in the meantime? The Council won’t meet until after Last Meal today.”
“We will imprison her, of course. Come.” To Shannon, Bale said, “You have arranged for your capture right on the doorstep of our holding pen.” He gestured with his free paw up the hill toward the nearest caves. “Allow me to express my gratitude.”
“My pleasure,” Shannon muttered.
“Wait, Bale. I don’t know if we should imprison her,” Pak said, his feet shifting. “She has committed no offense. Don’t you think it would be easier just to send her back to Earth?”
“She claims friendship with Roebor. That is offense enough for me.” Bale flapped his wings harder, lifted higher, turned, and carried Shannon toward her prison. Pak hesitated a moment before lifting off. Shannon craned her neck to watch him.
He gazed absently about while he pondered Bale’s actions. As he looked around, his head jerked back, then lowered toward the shadows at the base of the outcropping.
Uh-oh. Pak had spotted Narci and Salesti. Shannon tensed. Pak cocked his head, glanced over toward Bale’s retreating figure, and viewed the shadows once more. After a slight pause, he shrugged, took flight, and headed after his brother.
* * *
“This should hold you. I believe the bars fit close enough together to stop even a puny Earth thing,” Bale said.
He pushed her into the cell with a flick of his thumb and forefinger.
Shannon, still off-balance from her short, none-too-gentle flight, grabbed for the six-inch-wide cell bars, missed, and fell.
She jumped to her feet and opened her mouth to argue the injustice of her imprisonment. But what did she know of the justice or injustice of this world? She held her peace and ran her braid through her fingers.
The temperature in the cell felt ten degrees cooler than outside. A faint dampness floated in the air as if the cave had trapped the moist sea breeze and held it captive, too. Shivering, she zipped up her sweatshirt.
What a mess. Sometimes her original career as a civil attorney, which she'd come to hate, didn’t seem so bad after all. Like now.
Shannon glanced around. The cave extended far out into the shadows to either side of her, and another two hundred feet or so behind her to the rough cave wall without windows. The cell was like a rough-hewn high school gymnasium. Metal bars extended from the cave floor to the upper reaches of the cave, not quite touching the uneven roof, but coming close enough to prevent any dragonpanthers or humans from slipping over. Nothing bigger than Salesti could manage that gap.
Outside her cell, only the two dragonpanthers relieved the dreary emptiness of the stadium-sized cave.
Pak and Bale, standing midway between Shannon and the cave entrance, discussed what their next steps should be.
As much as Shannon would’ve wished otherwise, Salesti and Narci had likely followed her captors to the cave. Pak and Bale blocked every inch of her view of the cave entrance, so she began to pace along the cell bars like a restless tiger, treading back and forth, trying to reach a point where she could see around her bulky captors.
There! Her two companions raced into view at the lefthand edge of the cave opening. Shannon gave a quick shake of her head to warn them away.
Using her mental connection with the two, Shannon communicated without having to speak out loud. Narci, stay there if you can find a place to hide. Salesti—it’s past time you explained what’s happened to Roebor.
yes. salesti tells, said the alien. people of roebor take roebor prisoner for death of tidak. the council sentences roebor to death. execution when sun rises.
Execution? Shannon asked. He should be the hero here and Tidak should be the villain. What happened?
to the dragonpanthers, tidak not does wrong. roebor does wrong because roebor destroys head of tidak. destruction of head taboo on fireworld. terrible thing. worst crime possible.
Shannon shook her head. But that still makes no sense because I’m the one who killed Tidak, not Roebor.
The one who killed Tidak: she closed her eyes and gripped her braid. The thought of it still made her sick.
Salesti lifted its tiny shoulders in a shrug. roebor not mentions shannon to dragonpanthers.
Bale interrupted their silent conversation.
“Explain yourself, Earth thing. What is your connection to Roebor?”
“Our goals aligned. I wanted to stop a virus from spreading on Earth, and he wanted to take the virus away. But Tidak challenged Roebor every time they met. Help me understand why you find Roebor in the wrong.”
Bale slammed his massive fist into the bars. Shannon jumped back. “Roebor left few marks on Father except the defilement of his head. No honorable fight would end in such a singular injury. . . ambush. . . treachery. . . it is impossible for it to have happened otherwise.” Bale choked out the words. Whatever she thought of him, Shannon was witnessing deep and genuine grief.
“Bale, please. Let me explain. I’m—”
Shannon, no! Do not speak another word.
Roebor! The weak, distant voice of Roebor.
Can they hear us? Where are you? she asked.
No, they cannot hear us. It is our gift to exclude all but those we wish from our conversations. Otherwise, we would have no privacy. Say nothing but in direct answer to their questions. Bale would fly to Earth today and scorch it to ashes, and you with it if he had his way, but I believe calmer heads will prevail if you act prudently.
You sound weak.
I am fine. Did he hurt you? If he did, I swear by all the gods—
I’m good. He threw me in jail, that’s all.
Let us speak further when Bale leaves you. Hold your words for now.
Bale interrupted again. “You said, ‘I am.’ You are what? Why did you stop speaking?”
Shannon stood and approached the bars. “Sorry, I’m. . . confused. Tidak didn’t care if he exposed the creatures of Earth to the virus, which would’ve killed us—he focused only on returning to FireWorld with enough virus cells to make the antidote, no matter what the consequences to Earth. Roebor planned to find the virus but still save my planet. Isn’t that the better way?”
Bale settled back on his haunches. His eyes narrowed. “Your words might sway us if you spoke the truth. You do not. If you truly believe these words, then Roebor lied to you.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that. Roebor—”
Bale’s low growl cut Shannon off. “We wished no harm to your world, puny Earth thing, but more and more of our people perished every day. Roebor was the one who proposed the method that would contaminate your world. He saw no way around it. The Council gave Roebor and my father permission to condemn your world to save our own. Then he and my father swore to the Council to work together to retrieve the virus.”
“But Roebor did extract the virus without exposing anyone to it, so he did know how to do it safely.”
“He played you for a fool, inventing the so-called ‘process’ as he went along to keep Father away, to defeat him, and to claim the glory as his own. Can you deny this?”
“Well. . . well. . . we did keep Tidak away, yes. . . .”
“And can you deny he put my father in chains, which he happened to bring along with his equipment, rather than finish the project with him?”
“Again, no, I can't deny that. But Tidak had challenged him to a fight to the death.”
“Once Roebor broke the vow and endangered the mission, honor and law bound my father to challenge Roebor. A fight to the death would have bestowed honor upon them both. However, they did not engage in an honorable fight to the death, did they? Roebor slaughtered my father instead.”
So much they didn’t understand. And now Bale had made it clear Shannon didn’t understand everything either. Could Bale be telling the truth? Shannon’s knees weakened. She steadied herself against the bars.
“Do you know how many of my people perished while Roebor delayed on Earth with his scheme to outwit Father and take the virus for himself? Three hundred. Three hundred. His own mother died waiting for their return. And you helped him. I should kill you.”
“His own. . . and yet he saved millions on Earth,” Shannon whispered. But of course, why would that matter to FireWorld’s inhabitants?
Shannon studied Bale. The glowering dragonpanther was gigantic, although not as huge as Roebor. His mouth curved over incisors the size of samurai swords. Four paws clicked to reveal lethal claws. Legs stiff, tail raised high, he radiated anger. He stepped close to the bars. Shannon stepped back. She felt like a dormouse under a tiger’s intense gaze.
Behind him, his brother Pak listened and watched, but revealed none of the pure rage that radiated from his brother.
The hummingbird-kitten-like Salesti hovered quietly, buzzing behind a bulky pile of equipment next to the wide, rock-strewn cave entrance. Shannon caught a glimpse of it every few minutes as it darted out to assess the situation before zipping back out of sight. The dragonpanthers didn’t seem to register the faint sound.
In the meantime, Narci had hidden well; Shannon hadn’t spotted the cat again since the two arrived. She should never have brought Narci with her. True, Narci had wanted to come, and true, she’d helped Shannon out of a jam more than once since the Alien Troubles, but one misstep and these giants would destroy her sweet Narcissus in a heartbeat.
To Shannon’s surprise, Narci answered. The cat had been able to connect with Shannon since the Alien Troubles but chose to stay silent most of the time. Do not worry, the cat said.
Can’t help it, sweetheart. Get used to it.
Meanwhile, Bale continued to glare at her. "Enough of you," he said, all evidence of patience disappearing. He stood tall, opened his chest wide, and inhaled. The smell of sulphur cut the air as silver-blue sparks erupted around his nose and mouth, and for an instant that lasted an eternity, Shannon cringed, waiting for him to incinerate her. She sank onto her knees and braced for what she hoped would be a mere moment of agony before his fire reduced her to ashes.
Pak darted to Bale’s side and laid a great furry paw on his chest. “Peace, brother. The Earth thing doesn’t understand what has transpired here. Roebor duped her. This isn’t her fight.”
Shannon blushed from skin to conscience; she had fought with Tidak. Not only that, but she had killed him. Still, one word about Tidak’s true killer would end her life in a roaring blaze. She couldn’t help Roebor if Bale fried her to a crisp. She must watch her words.
“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked.
Pak took up the story, settling onto his stomach with his legs tucked under his chest. Bale paced back and forth behind him. The ground vibrated with each step.
“We all rejoiced when Roebor and Tidak pledged to work together,” said Pak, “as they had been bitter rivals all their lives, each trying to outshine the other. Each carried the pride of his Clan on his back—Roebor from the ruling Blue Clan, Tidak from the once-strong Gold Clan. However, the dire straits of our people brought the two of them together—the strongest, smartest, and bravest among us—to bring back the antidote.”
The two had pledged to cooperate? Whatever they might have pledged, they’d abandoned any pretense of working together from the first moment they landed on Earth. Shannon had witnessed that much.
“Their fathers came to a truce of sorts while awaiting their return. My brother and I treated Roebor’s sister Jal with courtesy. It was a hopeful time.”
Shannon, who’d been staring into the cave’s dark recesses as she listened, turned sharply to focus on Pak; the softness with which Pak spoke Jal’s name revealed his feelings for Roebor’s sister.
Poor Pak. Countless Romeos and Juliets had lived that story—and it never ended well. She glanced at Bale, who had also reacted to Pak’s words. The fire in his eyes flared before he narrowed his gaze at his brother.
Oblivious to Shannon’s reaction before him and his brother’s reaction behind, Pak continued. “They agreed with the plan to obtain the virus. You must understand that our people wished no harm to the people of Earth. But in the end, our scientists saw no way to save your world. After Roebor and Tidak departed, we heard nothing for days. The Council debated whether to send warriors after them, but we didn’t know where they'd gone or what we would find.”
Pak nodded over his shoulder toward his brother. “My brother, Bale, volunteered to go, despite the uncertainty, but Grandfather didn’t want to lose him if our father failed to return.”
The smaller brother smiled, but with sad eyes. “I'm not the warrior in our clan. If the Gold Clan is to return to power, Bale will accomplish it. Once the Council executes Roebor in the morning, Bale will challenge Roebor’s invalid father to the Championship Fight; a fight Bale unquestionably will win.”
“You think I could not beat Roebor in battle?” Bale roared behind Pak’s back. “I would best him.”
“What I believe doesn’t matter, Bale. Grandfather schemes to pave your way by forcing Roebor’s crippled father to face you, a battle that you cannot lose.”
Bale rose onto his hind legs and smashed one great fist into the palm of the other paw. “I wish to fight Roebor! True honor lies there. True revenge for the death of our father. I can beat him.”
Shannon glimpsed Pak’s expression while Bale did not. Considerable doubt lingered there. Pak directed his attention back to Shannon.
“The secret Council vote on Roebor’s death sentence was close. He lost by one.”
“By one vote?” Shannon asked, grabbing her braid.
Do not grieve, Shannon. Death justice remains the way of my people, however hard I have fought for it to be otherwise.
“Enough!” Bale interrupted Pak’s patient retelling of the story. “She is our prisoner, not a guest who’s come for fireside storytelling. For aiding Roebor on Earth, I would put her to death beside him.”
Pak protested, but his brother raised a paw to halt him. “I know. The Council may not countenance her death. However, if they will not, I shall ask that they force her to watch him die. And this wish they will grant.”