Naomi rested her long, graceful neck on Julian’s shoulder and admired the way the sun sparkled off his deep emerald scales, bringing out flecks of gold and purple. “They said there’s nothing they can do,” she said softly.
Julian’s head moved swiftly, and he moved her off his shoulder so he could look into her eyes. “That can’t be true. The mages know how to heal everything. Have they consulted with the witches as well?”
She was already tired. Naomi didn’t know what this illness was, but it was slowly consuming her body. She could hardly sleep at night from the pain; during the day, she had so little energy, she was barely able to hunt for food. It was only because Julian insisted on bringing her fresh meat that she hadn’t starved to death. And then, of course, there had been the long climb to the top of Mount Taendru to visit the mages. It had taken the last of her spirit just to get there, and then they had given her the worst news she could have imagined.
“They have,” Naomi affirmed. “But they’ve tried everything they know. Ervol even said he’s seen this sort of thing before, but it’s so rare, they don’t have a name for it.”
“There’s got to be something.” Julian was up now, pacing so quickly, he stirred up the thick red dirt under his clawed feet. They had come to their secret meeting place, a clearing in the woods on the far side of the mountains. It was where they had talked for hours into the night, made love, and made plans for their future together. But this time, there was no excitement or romance in their rendezvous.
“Not from them.” She had known it would come to this, but still she didn’t want to tell him. How could she get him to understand what a desperate position she was in? The life she was living wasn’t one that was worth holding onto, and the risk just might be worth it. Still, it was impossible to explain.
Julian, sensing that she had more to say, stopped pacing and turned a malachite eye to her. “What do you mean?”
Turning away to study the deep foliage that was such a contrast to the crimson rocky mountains that surrounded their settlement on Charok, Naomi searched for the right words. She only had one chance to do this right. If not, Julian might become angry with her or even try to stop her. She didn’t want either one to happen, because she wanted to leave on good terms. “There is one thing that hasn’t been tried yet, but it’s not something the mages can do. It means that I’ll have to go away.”
“Okay.” Julian’s scaly lips tightened as he tried to remain patient. “You mean to gather a mineral in a distant mountain range or a plant that grows in a different set of woods?”
“No.” She turned to look him in the eye now, knowing that he deserved it. He had been so good to her. “I’m going away permanently. I won’t be back, ever.”
“Naomi, you can’t—”
“Don’t try to stop me, Julian. You’ve got to promise me that you won’t ask me any more about it or try to find out what I’m doing. And you can’t follow me. You just can’t.” A tear leaked from the corner of her eye, though she thought she was all out of them.
“Whatever it is, just tell me! I can go with you. I can help in some way. But you can’t just disappear and ask me never to wonder what happened!” His fists curled in the dirt, sending a red cloud into the air.
He was getting angry, and her instinct was to yell and rage right back at him. If she had been in good health, she might have done just that. Naomi had never been afraid to express her opinion around him, and it was one of the reasons that the two of them worked so well together. But she had no energy to argue, and there wasn’t even time for it. She would have to leave soon. “If you love me, then you’ll do what I’m asking,” she pleaded, her words nearly carried away on the breeze they were so soft. “Please, Julian.”
There was fire in his eyes, and he looked as though he was about to argue once again, but he took a deep breath instead. “When is this all supposed to happen?”
“As soon as possible.”
“I don’t even get to have one last night with you?”
A second tear followed the first one, and it absorbed quickly in the warm ground. “No. I’m afraid not.”
“And you’re certain I can’t come with you?” His voice was pleading now, desperate. “There’s nothing that says I have to stay here. I won’t be missed.”
He would be, but Naomi knew she couldn’t convince him of that. “Come with me back to the mountains, but beyond there, I have to continue alone.” Even this was a compromise on her part. Naomi knew she could have told him to stay in that clearing for hours, and then there would be very little chance he would see where she was heading, but at least she would still be giving him something. Besides, she wasn’t certain she could make it all the way back on her own.
They spoke very little as they journeyed. There was nothing much to say. Every now and then, Julian let his wing bump gently against hers, as though he was reminding her that he was still there. It would have been easier for them to fly, but that would have taken far more out of her than what she had.
When they stood once again on the rocky ledges of the mountains, she turned to him. “I have to go now. But I want you to know that I love you, Julian. I feel as though I’ve loved you my entire life, and I’m sorry that I won’t get to spend the rest of it with you.”
“I love you, too.” He curled his neck around hers, letting his wings come forward to embrace both of their bodies. It wasn’t the sort of thing they would have done a few weeks ago, before Naomi grew ill. The two of them had been determined to keep their relationship a secret as long as they could, unwilling to spoil it with the prying eyes and nosy wonderings of the other dragons. But it didn’t matter now. Let them see, if anyone was around.
“I know you say you aren’t coming back,” Julian whispered, “but I’m going to wait for you anyway.”
“No, don’t do that,” Naomi protested. “You deserve a chance to move on, to be happy.”
He gave her a small smile, the barest upturn of one corner of his mouth. “I think we both know that can’t happen. But thank you anyway.”
Naomi turned and headed down the mountain path, veering to the left halfway down to travel north. Without looking back, she knew Julian was watching her. He stood on the top of the mountain, waiting to see if she would turn around and tell him she had changed her mind. But Naomi knew she couldn’t change her mind. She would only die, and that wasn’t going to help either one of them.
It was a long journey, and a hot one. Naomi had to stop and rest at shorter and shorter intervals, barely catching her breath before it was time to move on again. Her feet ached, and by the time she reached the bush of purple flowers that marked the hidden path, her wingtips were dragging on the ground. Her neck slung low, parallel to the ground, and she turned toward the woods once again.
The little hut was right where she had left it before, and Varhan swung open the door before he reached it. “Sit, sit!” he commanded as he came rushing out. “I can see that the journey has taken its toll.”
“You could say that,” Naomi whispered. She took no comfort from the shade of the trees or the padding of leaf litter underneath her. “I didn’t think I would make it at all.”
The wizard was at her side, his pale, fleshy fingers gently moving across her scales. “It’s gotten quite bad, hasn’t it?”
She tried to nod but only managed to slightly roll her head in the dead leaves on the ground.
“You’re certain you understand how all of this works?” Varhan asked. “You have to be completely committed to the idea, or there’s a chance that it may not work at all.”
“I know what you said, that the energies are different in this other place. That I’ll be healed simply by being there. What did you say it was called again?”
“Earth,” Varhan replied. “It’s an odd sort of place, but most of the creatures there are in human form, just like myself--or you, if you’re so inclined. Do any of your people prefer to go around on two legs instead of four?”
“Not very often. Only when we have to, or if we go to the Great Court. You can fit a lot more dragons into a small space that way. But personally, I like my scales.” Now that she thought about it, she might have had an easier time getting to the wizard’s hut if she had shifted. But that took energy as well, and there was no telling if she could accomplish it anymore.
Varhan gave a soft laugh and ducked through the door of his hut. Naomi could hear him inside, rattling bottles and moving things around. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve always found dragons to be so fascinating. In your own way, you can be even more stubborn than wizards.”
“Is that why there’s always someone arguing over land in the Great Basin?” Naomi wheezed. “Because everyone is too stubborn to compromise?”
The wizard shrugged as he emerged from his home, a roll of his shoulders under his tattered brown robe. He was by far the most humble wizard Naomi had ever met, and the only one who would condescend to talk to her. “That might be a large part of it, indeed. I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our people ended up going to war. And over something so silly.” He shook his head as he dipped a brush into a small clay jar and began painting a cool substance over her body, starting at the spine and working his way down. “The idea makes me sad. I think we have a lot to learn from each other.”
“You’re right.” Naomi closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation of the salve. She didn’t know what it was, but its cooling effect was glorious. It had seemed that her fire was constantly building up inside her since she’d fallen ill, but she couldn’t seem to muster the desire to dispense of it. “And I don’t even want to know what Julian or anyone else would think if they realized I had come to a wizard for help.”
“Don’t you worry about Julian. He’ll be fine.”
She swiveled her head to look at him, immediately setting her chin back on the ground after the effort. Still, she could see his round face and his dark hair. He was much younger than any of the other wizards she had seen. Maybe that was why he didn’t carry the same biases as the others. “You know Julian?”
“I know a lot more than you might think.” Varhan stretched up on his tiptoes to reach the long bones of her wings with his brush. “I’ve lived out here a long time, and I come out to talk to anyone who comes by. I’ve never been bold enough to march right into your town and make my presence known, but I’ve still managed to gather quite a bit of information.”
Naomi was silent for a while as she watched him finish with the silvery substance. It made her blue scales, normally shiny, a matte grey color. “Do you really think this will work?”
Varhan took one last stroke of his paintbrush down her tail and returned to her head. He kneeled down in front of her, his grey eyes looking calmly into hers. “I do. I’ve studied long and hard. There are numerous factors at work here, but I think I can manipulate them in all the right ways to get you to Earth. But I need you to understand that this isn’t as simple as transporting a being from one place to another. It pulls on the strings of the universe, changing and manipulating things in ways that even I wouldn’t have imagined during my studies under Master Knexon. In other words, I’m changing your entire life as well as the lives of others.”
“Am I putting anyone in danger? I’d rather die here than know I had blood on my claws.”
“No, no.” Varhan stood and went inside his hut once again, coming back out with a burlap sack. He began removing stones from it one by one, setting them in a large circle around the dragon. “I know most wizards aren’t too concerned with who gets caught up in their spells, but I’m different. This whole thing is different.” He paused, resting his fingers against his mouth for a moment as though unsure of how to proceed. “Naomi, I have studied the way the universe pulls at each of us as individuals, and I can tell you that this spell is going to have lasting effects. But they’re going to be good ones. It’s on Earth that you’ll meet your true love.”
Her heart rose in her chest, out of fear instead of hope. She had already met her mate, and he was there, on Charok. “But—”
“And your presence will ensure that three others meet the ones they’re truly meant to be with, though they might not meet them otherwise. So take heart in knowing that not only are you saving yourself, but you’re giving one of the greatest gifts to others as well.”
This all sounded too good to be true, and Naomi didn’t like the idea of not knowing for certain what was happening. “Varhan, I—”
“Hush,” the wizard whispered. He turned an ear to the treetops, lifting his eyes to the sky for a moment. “We have to finish this quickly, or the opportunity will be missed. This application will protect you during the transition, but it only lasts so long.” He placed the last of the stones around Naomi and began chanting. It was a language she didn’t understand, but she knew this was no time to question him. Varhan moved around her, his hands waving quickly as he manipulated the very air around them. Soon enough, Naomi could see sparks flying from his fingers as he worked.
She gave one last thought to Julian. How she wished she could have told him what was happening, but she barely even understood it herself. This sickness, this disease that even the mages couldn’t cure, was only going to resolve if she left the planet itself. And to make things even more shameful, it required the help of a wizard. The other dragons would never have let her go if they had known, and that was why she had not even told Julian the entire truth. If someone discovered what had happened, she didn’t want him to be part of it.
Her scales tingled as the leaves on the forest floor began to swirl around her. The light from Varhan’s fingers had now become streaks instead of sparks, and they joined the whirlwind. The ground trembled beneath her, but she no longer had the energy to be afraid as it dissipated. The wizard’s chanting had either stopped or been lost in the sound of the wind, but either way, it didn’t look like the spell needed him anymore. The dirt and leaves separated completely beneath Naomi, revealing a blackness deeper than anything she had seen before.
She felt one last tear leak from her eye as she fell through.