It’s only pain. It’ll stop. It’s only pain. It’ll stop.
Yolette repeated her mental mantra. And the constant litany kept her putting one foot in front of the other without crying in frustration and collapsing. Her feet were screaming, her shoulders burned, and her fingers had gone numb from clutching at her backpack straps in hopes of lessening the weight on her shoulders somehow.
Her friends chatted happily ahead of her. Pride kept her from calling for help. She didn’t want to be a burden and make everyone uncomfortable with her presence. They would start wondering why she had stayed for a couples’ camping trip when her date had canceled. She didn’t have money to waste on a taxi ride home, so she kept her mouth shut.
This was a single weekend in her life—a small sacrifice to spend time with her friends, whom she didn’t get to see often.
“There it is,” Curt said.
Yolette registered his words but couldn’t appreciate them until she reached the camp a few minutes later. She dumped her bag and then hobbled to the nearest seat-like item—a tree stump—and sat down. A thankful sigh escaped her lips as she lifted her ponytail of braids away from her neck, allowing cool air to touch her sweaty skin.
“No rest for the wicked,” Curt said, clapping her back. “Ladies need to start dinner while we men pitch the tents.”
Sarah snapped, “Just because we’re in the woods doesn’t mean you get to go all caveman on us.”
Curt shrugged. “Fine. The men will cook dinner, and you girls pitch the tents. Makes me no never mind either way.”
Rachel snorted. “I’m not pitching no tents. That’s why I have a boyfriend.” She looked over at Martin, who shrugged and headed for the tents.
Cecily said, holding up her spread fingers, “These nails cost me a hundred bucks. I’ll be damned if I’m breaking one of them messing with a tent.”
Yolette said, “I’d rather—”
“Fine. Whatever.” Sarah rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t volunteering to put up the tents. I’m just not doing the domesticity thing. Got it?”
Curt gave her a quick kiss. “But you look so cute in an apron.”
Sarah smacked his arm. He laughed as he walked away. Cecily and Rachel started unpacking the food while Sarah lit the grill and got the fire pit burning.
“Hello? Earth to Yoli.”
Yolette looked at Sarah. “Huh?”
“You’re not royalty. Get off your ass and help.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“Open cans, get out the plates, prepare the meat. Do something other than being a bump on that stump.”
“I was just resting because my feet hurt.”
Cecily said, “My feet hurt, too, you know. But I’m up helping. We all had to walk the same path, Yoli.”
Yeah, but you weren’t carrying a heavy bag up a mountain after a full day on your feet. She didn’t have the guts to say the comment out loud and chance starting an argument she probably wouldn’t win.
She let her hair drop, grunting a little as the weight of her mid-back-length box braids pulled against her tired neck. She got to her feet with a loud groan she hadn’t meant to utter. The pain hadn’t subsided in the least. In fact, sitting down must have made it worse.
Sarah said, “If you’re going to complain, you should have stayed home.”
Yolette wanted to yell, What the hell? You’re the one who made me come. Instead, she hobbled to the preparation table, fuming inside but not letting any of the emotion show. Sarah loved any excuse to get into an argument. She had started arguing a lot since money woes had put a strain on their friendship. The bank had raised the interest on their shared mortgage, upping the payments as well.
The camping trip was an excuse to get away from the house and the strife. Or so Yolette had thought. Sarah seemed incapable of letting it go, even for a weekend.
Yolette reached for the can opener, but Rachel grabbed it first. “Is there another can opener?”
Sarah said, “No. There are only five cans, and Rachel is opening them. Do something else.” She stoked the coals, stepping back when they popped and sent a spark flying her way.
Yolette shrugged and reached for the package of plastic plates. Cecily got to them first and also grabbed the cups and utensils. Another task taken. Yolette went for the meat, but Sarah was already preparing it for the grill.
What was left? Yolette looked around. Rachel had finished the cans and moved on to chopping vegetables for a salad. Yolette went over to her. “Do you need help?”
“I’m fine,” Rachel said.
That left Yolette searching for a task. She didn’t see anything and didn’t want to ask since Sarah would use it as an excuse to snap at her. Yolette sat on a nearby bench and waited.
The guys finished setting up the tents and came to the table at the same time Sarah brought over the meat. She placed the platter on the center of the table then sat down with a satisfied sounding sigh. Cecily and Rachel brought over the side dishes.
Curt grinned at Sarah. “Smells good. All I need is a cold beer and I’m set.”
Everyone looked around the table.
Will asked, “So where’s the beer?”
Sarah pushed to her feet, stomped over to an unopened bag, pulled out a mini-cloth cooler, brought it back to the table, and slammed it down. “Geez, Yoli, the least you could do is pull out the beer, since you didn’t do anything else to help. How hard is it to bring a cooler to the table?”
Yolette said, “I didn’t know that was in there. If you wanted me to get it, you should have said so.”
Curt said, “Whatever. It’s here. Let’s eat.”
The food looked delicious, but Yolette had lost her appetite. Her better judgment and intuition had told her to stay home. She should have listened to her gut. This weekend would be a drawn-out disaster Yolette would regret attending for the rest of her life. She knew that without a doubt in her mind.
The meal finished and everyone moved to the campfire. They laughed and joked with one another. Yolette couldn’t feel more out of place if she tried. Everyone paired off, sitting next to or on top of each other. Yolette was the odd one out, and it annoyed her.
Her annoyance grew when Sarah left her spot long enough to grab the s’mores ingredients and dump them next to Yolette as an unsubtle hint that Yolette was in charge of dessert.
“Hey, Yoli, pass me a s’more,” Curt said with his hand held out.
She layered the chocolate onto a graham cracker, used another graham cracker to take the marshmallow off the stick, and then squished it together as she walked it over to Curt.
“Thanks much.” He took a bite.
Sarah, who sat between his legs, yelped and pulled away from him. “Be careful with that thing. You dripped chocolate on my neck.”
“Oh really? Where?” Curt held the s’more out to the side as he pushed his face against Sarah’s neck.
She giggled and swatted at him.
Yolette turned away and returned to her seat. Rather than wait for everyone to put in their orders, she started making s’mores and setting them on a nearby plate. She made four before she had to get another plate from the table since Cecily had snatched the one she was using and had started passing it around.
“Geez, Yoli, you look bored,” Will said, biting into a s’more.
Rachel said, “She wouldn’t be bored if Lee had shown up.”
Yolette agreed silently, but only partially. The camping trip had one purpose—sex under the stars. Lee had been fun, but she didn’t want to be intimate with someone she’d met twice. Trying to convince Sarah had led to Yolette’s current situation.
“Yoli, what you need is obvious,” Curt said, still nuzzling Sarah’s neck.
“What’s that?” Yolette asked with genuine curiosity.
Sarah said, “A strong, black man.”
“Huh? You set me up with Lee, and he’s white.”
Cecily said, “Don’t be dense, Yoli. Black, white, orange, green, or fuchsia—it doesn’t matter. You need a man—boyfriend, one-night stand, whatever. Go out and get you some.”
Yolette forced a smile. “What am I supposed to do—advertise? I don’t like or go to clubs.”
“Maybe you should start,” Will said. He glanced at the others for confirmation before turning his attention back to Yolette. “Why did you come on this trip?” Cecily smacked him on the back of his head. “What? She’s not dating. Lee jumped ship. This is for couples. Unless she was planning on joining in—”
“No,” the girls said in perfect unison.
Yolette said, “I’m going to go to sleep now.” She left the fire and walked to the tent farthest from camp. They were alike, so her choice didn’t matter. She wanted to be as far from the couples as possible.
Will was right. What was she doing? Yolette should have used Sarah’s car to go home and ignored the possible fallout for doing it. Curt could give Sarah a ride. Yolette wanted be at home, enjoying the solitude while watching television or trying to beat another level of the video game she’d bought the other day. She lay in her tent and stared at the roof, wanting to see the stars.
The others didn’t waste time. The moaning started soft at first. One couple enjoyed themselves while the others talked. But the talking ebbed, and more sounds of sex joined the first, drowning out everything else.
Yolette covered her ears, which muffled the moaning but not the talking. She still tried. When her hands didn’t work, she resorted to her pillow. No luck. With a frustrated sound and close to tears, Yolette repacked her backpack and left the tent. She would sleep somewhere farther away.
Her feet carried her from camp with no set destination in mind. The temptation to head to the cars came over her but faded. Even with a flashlight, the forest was too dark, thus too dangerous.
Yolette came to a clearing and stopped. She peered through a break in the trees, and the sight pulled a contented sigh from her lips. Part of her wish had come true.
She whispered, “So many stars.” The city lights made stargazing difficult. On the mountain, that wasn’t an issue.
She scanned the area with her flashlight. It appeared safe enough. The campfire glowed through the foliage, but the sounds of her friends didn’t carry. This was a good place to sleep. Having the tent would be nice, but she had her sleeping bag. The night was comfortably cool, and the weather was supposed to be clear the entire weekend. She could deal with being a little more outdoors than she had originally planned.
After getting comfortable, she stared up at the stars and whispered, “It would be nice to have a man of my own. Then I wouldn’t have to rely on Sarah’s pity handouts, and I would be having fun on this trip, too. White, black, red… I’m not picky. So long as he’s nice to me.”
Her words made her think of her past relationships…all two of them. Training for figure skating competitions since she was eight had left no time for intimacy with the opposite sex. Her parents had made sure her every spare moment was filled with practice, exercise, and schoolwork to ensure her education wasn’t neglected.
She didn’t manage enough time for a real relationship until college. He had been a classmate and fellow sports medicine major. Her second boyfriend had been a coworker at the gym where she worked training the next generation of figure skating gold-medalist hopefuls…or that’s what she told herself they would be one day.
Neither relationship had been particularly memorable. Both ended on good terms, and Yolette still talked to them on the odd occasion.
“I wish I could be with someone who understands me and loves me despite some of my more annoying flaws. I know I talk too much, and I tend to ramble. Not to mention, I have a simple way of thinking. But there has to be someone who wouldn’t mind…at least you would think there would be someone who wouldn’t mind,” she said.
The stars didn’t reply. She sighed and closed her eyes. “Whatever. If wishes were money, I’d be rich and then I would only have to worry about gigolos and the like.”
A sound in the woods made Yolette clutch her bag to her chest. She reached into the side pocket and palmed her pocketknife. She was away from the fire and the others. She didn’t want to be unprepared if a wild animal attacked her—or, God forbid, another person.
Her thoughts made her shake her head at her silliness. Everything was fine. The next campsite was far away, if there was one at all. A deer would probably be the wildest thing she ran across, maybe an owl or a rodent.
She settled into her sleeping bag, intent on enjoying the great outdoors. Staring at the stars and listening to the rustlings leaves and soft scratching noises of the forest denizens calmed her enough to sleep.
* * * *
Wake followed sleep, so the child wasn’t sleeping. The child wouldn’t wake. Neither would any other child under the age of ten years wake or any laid egg hatch. The gods had wrought this curse upon the dragons—a slow death because the next generation had ceased.
“It was an accident!” Shurik yelled those words again because it seemed no one had heard him the first twenty times. “How can the gods listen to such blatant human lies? We have done nothing to deserve this.”
King Messin said, “And yet their judgment stands. We are cursed.” He looked to the side. Shurik followed his father’s gaze to his older brother, his older brother’s weeping wife, and their sleeping son.
Shurik said quickly, “The fault is not mine.”
Messin nodded. His manner was weary and defeated. “You are right, my son. The fault is not yours, not fully. I indulged this folly. Had I been stricter with you—”
Messin raised his voice. “Had I been stricter with you, this would not have happened.” He put his hand to his brow. After a deep sigh, he removed his crown.
Shurik stepped back, shaking his head. “Father, what are you doing?”
“It shows my poor judgment as king that this has happened. I can no longer rule.”
Everyone stopped moving and talking as one and stared at Messin. Each occupant wore an expression of shocked horror.
Next to Messin, Queen Feridah laid her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Be sure, my beloved. This decision cannot not be rescinded.”
“I am sure.” Messin held his crown out to the side toward Shurik’s brother. “Fedor, my eldest son, it is to you I pass my crown. Though it seems I have doomed our race to a slow death, rule wisely in the time we have left.”
Fedor stared at the crown, shaking his head. “No, Father. You are king.”
“Take the crown!” Messin roared.
Fedor’s hands shook as he accepted the crown, but he didn’t place it on his head.
Feridah moved to her son, took the crown, and held it out. Fedor seemed reluctant, but he bent before his mother. She placed the crown on his head and then stepped back. “Hail to you, King Fedor.”
No one repeated the greeting as they should. It was not a joyous occasion. No celebration would follow Fedor’s coronation, only silence and grieving.
Messin descended the throne dais steps and walked toward the doors.
Feridah said, “I do not abdicate my throne.”
“What?” Messin whipped around and faced her. “You are my mate.”
“I am. But we would commit a greater wrong leaving Fedor to rule alone. I will not abandon my sons as you have.”
“I have not abandoned my sons.”
“Haven’t you?” She raised an eyebrow ridge at him and awaited his answer.
Messin dropped her gaze.
“I retain my crown and my position as queen,” Feridah said in a clear, loud voice. “Weymaire is a distraught mother, whose current mindset renders her unfit to rule. When I feel this state has passed, only then will I pass my crown.” She looked to the side. “What say you to this, King Fedor?”
Fedor startled. He looked over the crowd who stared at him and then to his mother. “Yes, Queen Feridah.” His voice quivered as he spoke.
Feridah nodded. “Good.”
A throat being cleared made Shurik jerk around and look to the dark alcove where the noise had originated. He stepped out of the way as Daedalus, high priest of Father God Yggzyta, exited the shadows.
The noble black dragon displayed none of the depression gripping the rest of the dragon nation. He faced Feridah and Fedor but didn’t bow. The high priest never bowed to them. In fact, they lowered their heads, bowing to him. He nodded, and they straightened.
“There is hope,” Daedalus said. “It is our mother who cursed us, but our father gives us respite.” He looked around when murmuring started.
“Silence,” Feridah barked, which made everyone quiet once more. She nodded with an annoyed snort. “Please continue, High Priest.”
“Father God Yggzyta has spoken to Elder Lyfan in dreams. While the elder is ecstatic for this great honor, she grieves that it comes at a time such as this.” Daedalus took a breath. “He has charged the last-born son of King Messin to take a human female as his mate.”
That shocked question came from more than one mouth. But the loudest utterance had come from Shurik. He knew his face had to show disbelief. “I–I must… Why me?”
Daedalus snapped, “Your folly has wrought this curse upon us.”
“I did nothing wrong. It is Wullox who—”
“Still you blame others and refuse to see your error.” Daedalus stepped into Shurik, crowding the younger dragon back until he was pressed against a wall. “You are spoiled, willful, and ignorant. Messin may think he is to blame, but you hold that sole honor. A child such as you should not hold the power you have wielded over this court until now. Black dragon or not, your whims should not have taken precedence over the safety and well-being of our people.”
“Silence.” Daedalus snapped his jaws shut, making his teeth come together in a loud clap. “You will not question the will of Shadowed Father. You who have forsaken his studies to indulge curiosity have no room to speak.” Daedalus swept his gaze over Shurik. “If I could take this color from you, I would. If only to somehow remove the taint you have brought upon the nobility of it.”
Shurik hung his head, disbelieving Daedalus had spoken to him in such a way. Until that day, Daedalus had always joked with Shurik and teased him for skipping his studies. Daedalus had acted as an uncle to Shurik.
Daedalus backed away and faced the throne once more.
Feridah asked, “Mating a human female is the only way to break this curse?”
“Yes, your majesty,” Daedalus said.
Fedor said in a maniac voice, “That is simple enough, then. There are humans aplenty in the town nearest our border. We need only take one—”
“She must be willing,” Daedalus said in a monotone.
Again everyone in the room yelled, “What?”
Fedor asked, “She must now be willing? Where will we find one such female? She does not exist. Not on the whole of Abarrane does she exist. If she does exist, the humans will see her dead before she could ever be of any use to us.” He raised his clasped hands to Daedalus. “Please, High Priest, please tell me Shadowed Father knows this.”
Daedalus nodded. “He does.”
“It changes nothing.”
Fedor collapsed against the throne. He rested there a second before he jumped off the seat with a horrified look.
Feridah placed her hand on his shoulder and pushed him down. She whispered, “It is your throne now, my son.”
He stayed seated but didn’t relax.
Shurik opened his mouth several times before his words could be heard. Even then it was a whisper. “What if this willing female never comes? What if I die before she is found? What then?”
Daedalus didn’t face Shurik as he said, “You will wait.”
“I will wait? I don’t understand.”
“You will not die before she is found, because you will not die. Even as the rest of us leave this existence, you and the sleeping children will yet remain. The humans will probably try to kill you, but they will fail. Forever is yours until you fulfill the task Shadowed Father has given you.” Daedalus looked at him then. “That is your true punishment for this misdeed.”
Shurik had heard enough. He walked past his father.
“Running will not change what must be, Shurik,” Daedalus called after him.
Shurik didn’t stop. He couldn’t say or do anything. Well, there was one thing he could do. He simply didn’t know how.
He closed the throne room doors behind him and continued down the long corridor. He didn’t stop walking until he felt a cool breeze and the sunlight against his black scales.
Birds chirping made him look up at the sky. At any other time, some might describe the day as beautiful. Shurik wasn’t among their number.
“Why, Father God Yggzyta? Why have you done this to me?”
The vehemence and malice in that one word startled Shurik. He turned to see who had spoken it. “Kyllikki?”
She stood glaring at him. “Did you ask why this is done to you? To you? You ask why you as though this is solely your punishment?”
“I must mate to a willing human female.”
“You haven’t changed. You still think only of yourself. Even in the face of this tragedy, you are as selfish and self-centered as always.” Kyllikki pressed her palm to her chest. “My child lays half in and half out of her egg. Almost hatched, except the will was stolen from her. My mate is dead, like so many others who lost mates in this most recent battle with the humans. The tragedy of others looms around you, and you bemoan your own fate.”
“What else am I to think of if you want your child to live? I must mate to a human to end this.”
“Yet that will not bring back the dead.”
“He wasn’t worthy of you.”
Kyllikki slowly shook her head at him. “Don’t. Don’t you dare utter those words to me. You who refused have no right to pass judgment on he who did not.”
“Black dragons do not mate.”
“They do now,” she said in a grave voice. A sinister smile curved her lips. “I may have lost my mate and can have no other, but the cruelest of jokes is yours to bear. You who will mate but can never know that mate. You will be forever tied to one who will die long before you.” She cackled—the only word adequate to describe the sound, because it didn’t resemble laughter and held no amusement. “You will have to court a human and gain her affection if you want an end to all of this. You will know true suffering before this is over.”
Her cackling became louder. “I am happy I live to see this. I hope I am alive still when the fated day comes to pass. When you must put another before yourself for the first time in your miserable life is a day to which I look forward.”
“Your amusement is obscene.”
“Only to you!” Her laughter stopped. “None will show you sympathy or pity. Look to the humans for that. You have always wanted to know more about them. Shadowed Father has given you the chance.”
“There was a time when you shared my interest.”
“I grew up,” Kyllikki snapped. “I pray you do the same.” She turned and stalked away.
Shurik faced the sky once more.
Its beauty hadn’t changed. Would he be able to continue seeing the beauty when he was the last living dragon? He didn’t want to think of such a future, but it was the only one he saw for himself.
A willing human female didn’t exist. As Fedor had said, the humans would kill her rather than let her come to him.
He stiffened as he became aware of another presence behind him. In a solemn tone, he asked, “Have you come to berate me as well, mother?”
Feridah moved to his side and wrapped her arms and wings around him. “My beautiful son.” She held him.
Her tenderness brought tears to Shurik’s eyes. “How can you hold me and speak to me with kindness after all that has passed? Aren’t you angry with me as well?”
“My anger is not so blinded I must direct it at you alone. We all bear this burden. Your actions were the catalyst, not the cause. The cause was generations in the making. The cause is the fault of dragons and humans alike.” She pulled back and cupped his cheek. “You are merely the one of whom the gods chose to make an example.”
“I’m sorry, mother,” Shurik whispered, meaning every word. He was done denying the truth in hopes that it would go away. “This is my fault.”
Admitting it made the burden a physical thing that sat upon his shoulders like the weight of the distant mountains. His mother said they shared the burden, but Shurik knew the majority belonged to him. He wanted to continue in his denials until someone agreed with him. That someone would not come.
Shurik harbored no delusions he would find his human mate before time claimed all those still awake. So long as he remained in the palace as a constant reminder of the curse, no one would be able to enjoy the little time they had left. It was best he grow used to the silence. He pulled away from his mother.
“I…” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I will exile myself.”
“Exile? How like your father you are.”
“Father?” Shurik looked up in surprise. His surprise grew when Feridah smiled at him with genuine amusement. “Mother?”
“He has decided to live in exile, as well.”
“But that will not appease Golden Goddess.”
She shrugged with a shake of her head. “Be that as it may, he is determined to do it. We will take ourselves to the distant islands near the vampires.”
“But you remain queen. You said you wouldn’t leave Fedor to rule alone.”
“I am and I will not, but neither will I abandon my mate while he is so depressed. Your father is a proud dragon. This circumstance has come as a great blow to him. I fear he will do himself harm. Until he is stable, I will travel between the palace and the islands. In that time, I hope Weymaire will compose herself enough so she can rule at her mate’s side.”
“I am truly sorry, mother.”
“So you said, my son. Prove your words through your actions. Your self-exile is merely one step. I hope the future steps you take will help you grow and mature into the dragon I have always hoped you would become.”
“I disappoint you.”
Feridah hugged Shurik again. “You are my son, Shurik. Your happiness will never disappoint me. I wish for you more and better, to be everything you can, the best you can. All parents hope for the same. You may not think so now, but one day your happiness will return.”
“I doubt that.”
“Do not doubt the will of the gods. Shadowed Father would not give you a task you cannot handle. You need only search for and follow the path he has laid out for you.”
She squeezed him and then pulled back. “I will help you as much as I can.”
Her words lifted his spirits a little. “I have a request then, mother.”
“I want to live near the border.”
“That is nothing but flat land.”
Feridah nodded. “We can change that. Perhaps then you can soothe your curiosity once and for all.”
“I am no longer curious.”
“Don’t think to lie to me, my son. Tragedy may be all around you, but your curiosity would not wane so easily.”
He bowed his head.
Feridah laughed at him. It was a good sound. Shurik hoped in the future to come he would hear more dragon laughter. He hoped, in spite of knowing it couldn’t be true, his human mate would be found quickly so life returned to normal.
Even if he had to have a mate he could not know, he made the sacrifice willingly so his people could survive.
If Kyllikki could hear his thoughts, she would be happy Shurik had stopped thinking of himself alone. As his mother had said, he would prove his new resolve with his future actions. He hoped it made a difference.
* * * *
He contemplated the best way to approach her when so many options existed. A letter was too old-fashioned and a bit slow for his tastes. Using the phone was out of the question. A text message was too personal, while an email was too impersonal. He also didn’t want his message to be discarded as spam.
That left one choice—face-to-face.
He lifted his hand. A large black door appeared a moment before he rapped his knuckles against it. Though he’d knocked as softly as he could, it still sounded like banging. He hoped she wouldn’t take offense at the unintentional faux pas. Perhaps he should have used a doorbell.
It was too late to start over. First impressions annoyed him for that very reason.
No one answered the door, so he knocked once more. He hoped she wouldn’t ignore him. A meeting such as this was rare. Surely that should spark enough curiosity for her to open the door.
A small peephole appeared then expanded to a head-sized window. He smiled at the woman who looked through at him.
She drew back, and the window disappeared.
Was that her answer?
The door cracked open, and the woman peeked out. “Yes?”
“Hello. Please, come forward. I have prepared a space for us to speak,” he whispered.
“Um…” She looked wary.
Perhaps he should have worn a different visage, one less imposing. No, his true form was best so she wouldn’t think he was hiding from her if she chanced to realize he wore a disguise. “I have no intention of hurting you.”
“Why are you whispering?” she asked in a whisper of her own.
“I cannot speak much louder than this without causing issues for your world as well as my own since they are now connected. And, I thought you might find it intrusive if I used telepathy.”
“Use telepathy if you like.”
“Thank you.” He beckoned to her. “Please, enter.”
She looked over her shoulder before swinging the door wide and then stepping into the doorway. “This is a little strange for me.”
“I as well, I assure you. I am always at a loss as to how to approach my cohorts in other dimensions.”
“Cohorts? Then you’re an SB as well?”
“SB? I am unfamiliar with the term.”
“Supreme Being. It’s what we’re called on this world.”
She laughed. “If we started calling ourselves gods, we’d have another human-preternatural war on our hands.”
He made a noncommittal thinking noise. He’d heard of the preternatural-human war that had devastated many incarnations of his planet some millennia ago. Strange he would stumble across one such incarnation.
“So you call yourself a god, and your inhabitants don’t mind?”
“My inhabitants worship me as a god because I created them. But please enter. Our conversation needs no audience.” He looked behind the woman.
She said to her companion, “I’ll be back in a few.”
Her companion called, “Wait. You don’t—”
She closed the door on what her companion would have said and then faced him. “What did you need to speak to me about?”
“There is no need to be nervous. We are both SBs, as you have said.”
“That may be, but you are way beyond me, by several millennia at least. Unless I’m reading your age wrong.”
“You are not. Age is insignificant next to experience, of which you’ve had plenty. You knew enough to take my call. That is not a claim your fellows can boast.”
“You called one of the others.”
“Yes, some time ago over a matter different than the one today. Two of them. They ignored me.” He curled his upper lip with mild displeasure.
“I would have never ignored you. I did take a while to answer, but only because you surprised me. I’ve never had an SB from another dimension contact me. I figured it had to be important.” She fidgeted and looked over her shoulder.
The cause of her unease became apparent to him. He smiled and whispered, “Ah.”
She jumped. “What?”
“I have realized where your nervousness truly originates.” His smile grew when she paled. One older than her would never betray an obvious weakness. “Do not fret, young one. Harm is not my intention, though it is my power base. I am sure you will see fit to correct your flaw in due course.”
She tried to back away while not looking as though she was backing away. He felt her powers reaching out for the door. Their conversation had not ended. In fact, it hadn’t begun. He gestured, and the door disappeared.
The unease surrounding her grew, and he knew she’d discovered he locked the proverbial door behind her.
She stared at him with wide eyes.
“As I said, harm is not my intention. I simply wish this audience not to be cut short before I have had my say.”
Though she agreed, he did not feel her powers abate. She still searched for a way out. Once she heard his request and gave her answer, he would open the door for her. It was to his advantage she wasn’t stronger. Perhaps their meeting would push her to become so.
“I wish for a denizen of your domain.”
She stopped searching for an exit and focused her attention on him. “Denizen? Which one? For what and how long?”
“The length of her stay is entirely up to her. I merely require her presence.”
He waved his hand and the darkness opened to a view of a mountain. The image moved closer until several men and women trekking up the mountain’s side were visible. He tapped the image of the woman who lagged far behind the others due to the weight of a backpack she carried. “Her.”
Amusement filled him as his speaking companion craned her neck to see while retaining her distance.
“Come closer so you can see the object of my interest more clearly.” He stepped back to make her more at ease.
She inched closer, casting him wary looks the whole while. “Why her?”
He turned his attention to the mountainside and the woman he’d chosen. Sweat dotted her determined brow, and her light-chestnut-colored skin flushed red with exertion. Though she looked close to crying, her brown-hazel eyes never let one tear drop. He knew her to be an athletic person. However, she had not trained her slender body for the strenuous climb. He also knew she would not call for help and burden her friends with her troubles. These qualities endeared her to him.
“She is one I feel would do well in the recently developed situation.”
“Details are inconsequential. I merely need your permission.”
“Mine?” Her question came out as a squeak she quickly tried to cover by clearing her throat. “Why would you need my permission? You have the power to take her without me noticing.”
He nodded. “I do. But it is a courtesy to ask permission of the residing SB before taking one of their denizens. In like manner, it is courtesy to ask before adding a denizen to an SB’s domain.”
“Sure.” Her tone showed her confusion.
“This must be new to you.”
“Yes, it is but…” she trailed off, shaking her head. “Will she be harmed?”
“That is entirely up to her.”
“Why do you need her?”
“As I have already stated, details are—”
“Inconsequential.” She nodded with a hint of annoyance. “Okay, look. I’ve been having everyone coming out of the woodwork recently wanting people from my domain. I’m just trying to figure out why. What’s so special about my little chunk?”
“There is nothing special. She is simply my choice who happens to reside in your domain.”
“Lucky her. Say I agree. What do I get out of this?”
He smiled. Her fear seemed to be vanishing. Good. He could deal better with her if she wasn’t afraid of him.
“What would you like?”
She thought for a moment, staring at him the whole while. Eventually she shrugged. “I have no clue. What do SBs normally ask for when trading lives?”
“I am equally unsure, as this is the first time I have done this as well. It makes sense to ask for a denizen of my domain in return.”
“Okay, but I don’t want or need anyone from your domain.”
“You may in the future.”
She opened her mouth and then closed it. After a moment staring at him, she asked, “Are you saying that for a certainty or merely speculating about the future?”
“You should know time will always be an unknown, even with our powers. I merely speculate.”
“Then how about this—give me an IOU. If I ever think of a reason to want someone from your domain, I’ll give you a call. Deal?”
“Fair and wise.” He held out his hand.
She hesitated for a second and then placed her hand in his.
“Deal,” he echoed in his usual whisper.
They released each other and looked at the image. The subject of their conversation had joined her friends, who seemed unconcerned with her tardiness or fatigue.
“Now what?” His speaking companion finally stood next to him without a hint of fear. She looked at him expectantly.
He waved his hand over the image, pushing his power toward the girl within. “She need only open herself to my power.”
She raised a questioning eyebrow at him.
“A simple wish will do.”
“Isn’t that roundabout? You could just take her.”
He chuckled. “You are still new. You will learn. It is better they never suspect our involvement in their destinies, or else life will no longer hold mysteries for them.”
“If that’s how you want it, I can’t say anything.” She looked over her shoulder and then at him. Even though she did not voice her desire, he knew it.
“Thank you for your time, young one. Good luck to you, and I look forward to our future dealings.” He gestured behind her.
The door reappeared and opened, showing her office and her very frantic friend.
“Next time,” she called over her shoulder and exited.
He closed the door behind her and then turned his attention to the woman he had chosen. She would utter a wish that would invoke his power, of that he had no doubt. Her companions and her current situation all but ensured it.
“Yes, Yolette. I do believe you will do nicely.”