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ULTIMATE SEVEN

Title: Ultimate Seven

Series: Aeonians, 3

Author: Klimov, J.E.

ISBN: 978-1-60975-249-1

Product Code: BK0173

Format: Trade Paperback

Pages: 354

Release Date: March 2020

Cover Price: $21.95

Our Price: $21.95

 

 

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Book Jacket

 

Queen Isabel lost it all. Stuck on a remote island, she learns her husband Dante usurped the Deranian throne, and all her tribe leaders and allies are dead. Worst of all, her talismans that control the elements no longer work.

 

The once closed-off sovereign of Deran catches the attention from countries around the world: the Empress of Waaken wants to forge an allegiance while a clan leader in Irelle demands a relationship over a broken agreement.

 

Teaming up with Ami, a strong-willed innkeeper’s daughter, Isabel must find a way to restore her magic and return Deran to its former glory. However, the sands of time are shifting the events set in motion are eerily similar to what lead to the establishment of the Aeonians two hundred years ago.

 


 

Book Excerpt

 

CHAPTER

1

 

 

 

Voices crescendoed like a restless tiger roaring in its cage. Hundreds of feet below a glistening balcony, Tuuli men and women with glowing skin and lithe bodies cried out to Empress Zidas. They stretched their wings and shook their fists. Scores of Tuuli filled the streets and spilled past the gates and into the courtyard. The protest had been going on since sunrise.

Empress Zidas shook her head such a pitiful sight in the most beautiful citadel in the world. Crystal buildings twinkled like the morning dew, indifferent from the irate citizens that now pooled at the castle steps. Four guards brandished their hook swords, their ringed knee-length tunics fluttering in the breeze. The navy-blue fabric undulated like ocean waves. Zidas curled her mink coat tightly around her shoulders as a violent chill zipped down her spine.

“I know many of you are upset, but this potential tax will benefit Waaken on the long run.” Her voice was melodic yet hardened in steadfast resolve.

“Taxing us to keep our wings? You may as well order your soldiers to rip them off!” shouted one Tuuli. His tattered robe draped over his skeletal frame.

Heat erupted at the base of Zidas’ neck.

“The elders are corrupt,” growled another. A little Tuuli child sat upon her shoulders, eyes red from crying. “The tax money will go straight into their pockets! We have starving children and sick parents!”

The crowd erupted into chants, calling out Aran’s name.

“Enough!” Zidas shot both her hands into the air and spread her wings as far as she could. All eight feet stretched past the balcony, tugging at her muscles. “I’ve made the announcement, and I shall hear no more. Waaken is a respectable country, and this unruly behavior is unacceptable. We don’t behave like humans do!”

Her lips crimped into a tight frown as she spun on her heels and pushed past the drapes. Storming across the checkered floor, Zidas ignored the fussing from her subjects. When she slammed onto her glass throne tinted with evergreen pigment, she snapped her fingers.

“Tea, now!” she exclaimed through chattering teeth.

Once the steaming cup was within reach, she wrapped her long fingers around the porcelain. She sighed. The morning chill made her weekly proclamations challenging. Only after taking her first sip did Zidas acknowledge the ring of elders that sat around an oval table. The only other person in the room, Zidas’ personal guard named Owena, stood by the double doors. At six foot three, Owena was the tallest and most formidable of all the royal guards. If that didn’t make her stand out enough, her painted white lips exuded a fierce confidence. Even though she stood as still as a statue, Owena watched over Zidas like a hawk.

Zidas focused her attention back to the Table of Elders. She studied each one with hooded eyes, daring anyone to speak. Most were in their seventies, stubborn in their ways, and dressed in robes garnished with frilly trimmings. Raising an eyebrow, Zidas couldn’t help but understand why her people perceived the elders as corrupt political figures. However, throughout her few years as Empress, her pleas to tone done their opulent lifestyle fell onto deaf ears. Tucking her cropped hair behind her ears, her gaze settled on the youngest elder, sitting directly opposite of her.

“Aran, the Tuuli will never accept this tax.” With a flick of her wrist, she pointed toward the balcony. Her sheer sleeves hugged her arms and tapered at her knuckles. The fabric shimmered as her hands shook uncontrollably. “I triggered unnecessary panic. People have been whispering fears of economic collapse, and now I feel like I’ve brought their nightmare to life!”

 “Your Excellency, I didn’t expect them to break into riots.” Aran met her hard stare with his cobalt eyes.

His rich, tenor voice was easy on the ears, but Zidas didn’t allow it to lull her into a false sense of security. Without royal blood flowing in her veins, Zidas had much more to prove.

“This whole topic is hogwash!” The Tuuli elder to Zidas’ left with a buzzed hair-cut slammed his fist onto the table. “A tax to keep one’s wings strongly insinuates that you’re a part of the extremist wingless movement! You care more about making a statement than keeping this country afloat. We need sustainable sources of income, imbecile.”

“Narius, I’m not an extremist.” Aran squared his shoulders. “The majority of this council voted in favor of this tax.” He tucked his hands into his wool sleeves. The silver stitching branched into swirling lines, imitating movements of the wind.

“Not all elders have the country’s best interest in mind,” Narius muttered.

A band of tension squeezed Zidas’ skull as each elder dropped his head. All except for Narius and Aran.

Wrinkles carved deep lines across Narius’ forehead and branched from the corner of his eyes. When he scowled at Aran, his prominent lower jaw made him more comical than threatening. Zidas squirmed in her seat as she observed the pair, whose age difference was so great, they could’ve easily been mistaken for father and son. While Narius garnered more respect, Zidas felt more comfortable with Aran despite his unconventional politics. All the elders were cronies with the previous emperor, but Aran was fresh blood much like her both in their early-twenties. She couldn’t help but cling to the only elder she could build a fresh relationship with.

“Are you accusing me of purposefully hurting my own country?” Aran smirked and rubbed his chin.

“Listen, little brat

“That’s enough!” Zidas exclaimed. “Meeting adjourned. The decision has been made. There’s no point in bickering about it now.”

Chairs scraped against the floor followed by the padding of feet. The incessant bickering of men that gave her daily migraines finally dwindled to a dull vibration. She rubbed the sides of her head and groaned. She mentally noted that she should find a way to incorporate a female into the elder’s circle.

“Empress?” A soft voice crowed from behind the ten-foot double doors.

Zidas steadied her breath. “Come in, Yubi.”

Owena slammed her silver heeled boot against the floor and reached for the handle. As she opened the door, Owena cleared her throat to snag Zidas’ attention.

Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed Aran lingering by the table. As Yubi shuffled slowly, Aran bounded ahead of her with long strides.

Steeping into a low bow, he said, “I didn’t mean to cause a fuss.”

Zidas suppressed a laugh when Yubi huffed strands of gray hair from her eyes. He grasped Zidas’ hand as he stood. His angular jaw and full lips were undeniably attractive, but Zidas re-directed her attention to his shoulders. The robe scrunched up over his back, and leather straps appeared from within and buckled at his hips.

“You really are dedicated to the wingless movement.”

“It’s not a ‘wingless movement’,” he replied with a nervous laugh. “I drafted this proposal as a safety measure for our people. Rates of mood disorders: depression, anxiety, and the like, have skyrocketed over the decades, and you should know more than anyone that when negative thoughts consume a Tuuli’s mind, the ability to fly fails.”

Zidas bit her cheek and stared at her nails.

“The number of deaths related to this physiological failure is staggering. Wings have become dangerous. Unreliable. We haven’t discovered a way to alter mood, but we can remove wings.” He drew the last couple of words out slowly. “The tax will not only serve as a reminder to our people the risks of flight in the throes of emotion but also simultaneously fund research to solve this dilemma in alternative ways. Ignorant folk fear the tax will break the backs of Waaken civilization, but that’s clearly an exaggeration. If people want to avoid it, then they can elect to remove their wings—which is ultimately safer for them anyway. Win, win.”

Memories flashed before Zidas’ eyes. A little Tuuli boy had fallen to his death by the Eastern Cliffs. The family was traveling to Narida Island, twenty miles off the Waaken coast. They had only flown for a few minutes before the boy’s older sister started teasing him. The parents described it as a horrifying nightmare in slow motion. When the sister rammed into the boy, he began crying, and at the same time, his wings crumpled up like discarded parchment paper. Then, like an invisible anchor tied to his ankle, the boy plummeted into the smattering of rocks that jutted from the tumultuous sea. She wasn’t there to hear his cries, and yet, disembodied screams haunted her the night she heard the news.

“Hey.” Lifting his finger to her chin, Aran angled her head toward his. “You alright?”

Goose bumps spread across her body. Zidas nodded. Yubi cleared her throat.

“Besides, they’re doing it in Deran,” Aran added.

Arching her shoulders, Zidas lifted her nose high. “I care little about that speck in the ocean.”

“Well, you will.” Amusement sparkled in his eyes as he paused longer than Zidas felt comfortable. “The new king is a Tuuli.”

Her breath hitched. “A Tuuli? That’s impossible.” A sharp tug at her sash snapped her back to focus. Yubi stood as tall as her stooped back would allow, still clutching a fistful of her gown.

“Empress, I need a word with you,” Yubi pressed. Stringy hair piled on Yubi’s head like a bird’s nest, but everything else about her was tailored to perfection. She released Zidas’ sash and fiddled with her neck-high collar.

Zidas relaxed when she spoke. She always felt safe with Yubi, although Zidas knew she wasn’t a fan of Aran. Stuffing all emotions into a mental box, Zidas flashed Aran a cold stare and said, “You’re dismissed, Elder Aran.”

“As you wish.” His grin faded. He curtly nodded to Yubi and exited the room.

Yubi opened her mouth, but Zidas lifted a finger. “Aran may be a bit pompous, but he’s harmless. I believe his intentions are benevolent.” Zidas felt as if the suffocating corset she wore loosened. She collapsed on a chaise and removed her heels. Flexing her feet, she exhaled audibly.

“But he is a distraction. You’ve got to balance this new tax with the economic downturn Waaken is experiencing.”

Lifting her head, she found Yubi standing by the balcony. “He’s not a distraction, and he assured the Table of Elders that it won’t have the financial impact people fear.”

“My child,” she cooed. “I’m only looking out for your well-being. He’s the youngest elder in Waaken history, pretty damn handsome, and tries to get a little too close to you with that agenda of his.”

Releasing a chuckle, Zidas beckoned the old woman over. Yubi settled on a plush stool and folded her hands into her lap. Gold and white silk covered her petite frame, fabric glowing under the daylight. Even her slippers were made from silk. Yubi’s elegance made her seem immortal, but nothing could outshine her toothy smile. Zidas never knew her mother, but she hoped she was as kind as Yubi. Her vision clouded.

“Now, dear, what’s this emotion all about? I wasn’t scolding you. You’re a full-grown woman.”

Leaning forward, Zidas patted Yubi’s dry hands. “It’s not that. I’m just reminding myself how grateful I am.”

Yubi squinted until her eyes were just slits. “You say that to me every day.”

“But it’s true.”

“Ho, ho, ho, of course. I know you’re as hard as steel in the public eye.” Her jade earrings clacked as she craned her neck to check if the door was closed. Yubi lowered to a whisper. “I understand why you’re so tolerant of this new law.”

The room seemed to shrink. Tugging her necklace, Zidas said, “No. It’s not personal.” She flexed her wings until they extended around them. Zidas grazed the coarse edges with her fingertips. Even though ‘the incident’ occurred at birth, the invisible memory primed a steep fear of suffocation. “Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”

Yubi caressed Zidas’ wings with her weathered fingers. “No. It’s about Deran.”

Zidas jumped in her seat. She scanned the room as if Aran were to pop up from a hiding place. “Are you joking?”

Yubi’s cheeks wobbled back and forth as she shook her head. “Aran may have brought it up too, but I know more than he does. Information you need to know.”

A lute sung in the air, followed by the rhythmic plucking of a harp. The palace orchestra had gathered in the banquet hall downstairs, signaling that dinner was ready. It masked the ruckus that continued to rage outdoors; however, unease turned Zidas’ stomach. “I don’t understand. What more do I need to know? Other than a handful of Tuuli that immigrated there hundreds of years ago, there isn’t a formal relationship between our countries.” Zidas gestured from the crystal chandelier to the ceiling-high windows that displayed rolling hills extending into the horizon. “I rule thousands of acres, from lush woods to everglades teeming with all the resources we’ll ever need. No one cares about their fancy magic rocks.”

Yubi’s wild brows rose. She sucked in a wheezy breath and said, “Now is the moment when you will care about everything regarding Deran.”

Scoffing, Empress Zidas played with her opal ring. Deep down, uncertainty dug its roots into her soul. The unknown proved to be as intimidating as the protests outside.

Why Deran? Why now?

“The King of Deran the Tuuli Aran mentioned? He’s your brother.”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

2

 

 

 

Isabel tightened her abdominals, sweat beading along her hairline. Denial egged her on.

Try again!

Flexing her fingers toward an isolated palm tree, Isabel summoned fire from Foti’s Ruby. Nothing.

“Blasted thing! Work!” Isabel exclaimed.

She focused all her energy into her armlet-clad arm, pressing forward as if pushing a metal crate. Instead of warmth, searing hot pain lanced through her muscles. Isabel peeked at the armlet. All four of her stones sat in their gold setting, dull and lifeless. She had tried to summon the power of wind, water, earth, and now fire, but nothing happened. The armlet fed on her life force but gave nothing back. It had been like this since she had arrived in Camilla two weeks ago.

Collapsing onto her knees, Isabel cried out. She pounded the sand repeatedly, ignoring the grainy taste as some particles flew in her mouth. Tears leaked from her eyes, but it didn’t alleviate her agony.

Without my powers and stranded on some island, it’ll be impossible to return to Deran.

Isabel didn’t have a say when Bence transported her to Camilla; however, she knew deep down that if he hadn’t, she would’ve been slaughtered by Raiden’s henchmen. She clenched her jaw, frustration pulsing through the veins in her neck. Five Healers, people whose powers should’ve been stripped of years ago, had resurfaced after the Aeonian War. They took Deran by storm. The leader of the group, Raiden, used Dante as his puppet, manipulating his way around Isabel to usurp the throne. Though Isabel and Bence ultimately defeated Raiden, his legacy continued through Dante.

My own husband.

The gentle lapping of waves failed to comfort her. Isabel was exhausted and sick of dealing with unrelenting obstacles. Her parents died months ago at the tail end of a harrowing war, and Isabel assumed responsibility for her people and the four tribes. Her first task as a queen was to rebuild the entire nation; however, when Raiden wedged himself into the picture, families were stuck at the mercy of martial law.

Isabel stroked the four talismans. She had to find a way to restore their powers and reclaim her rightful place on the throne. Deran has long forgotten what peace felt like.

Isabel straightened and sat cross-legged. With a pout, she played with a black pearl ring, strung around her neck with twine.

“I don’t know exactly what you do, but I bet you don’t work either,” she said to Bence’s ring.

Someone in sandals scuffled behind her. Isabel bristled.

“Hungry?” The honeyed voice floated in the breeze.

Turning her head slightly, Isabel said, “No. Thanks, Ami.” Her stomach rumbled in defiance.

“You don’t have to eat inside. Here.”

A platter slid next to her, decorated with fish and prawn marinated in lime juice. Isabel detected a hint of spice in the otherwise acidic aroma.

Ami plopped beside Isabel and tucked her brown tresses behind her ears. She shared the same hazel eyes and athletic build. Many people in town joked they were long lost sisters. Isabel always cringed at the comment because it reminded her of Victoria, her deceased sibling whose shadow she lived under for years.

Her thoughts burst into fragments when Ami handed her a stick, whittled smooth and tapered at the end. When she grasped it, Ami pulled out one for herself and pierced into a thick morsel. Isabel followed suit, figuring it would buy her a few more seconds of silence.

Closing her eyes, Isabel’s focused on the taste of cold, tart flounder. When she reopened them, her heart reverted to its dull ache. The beach stretched for miles, pure like fresh cream while waves of turquoise lolled back and forth. Coconut trees, like the one she tried to burn down, were plentiful. Their fan-like leaves provided ample shade for the Camillians milling about. Each time a man, woman, or child passed Isabel, they issued a pitying smile.

A queen without her country.

“How’re you feeling? You shouldn’t push yourself too hard,” Ami’s said, words oozing with empathy.

“I’m okay,” Isabel lied. She released her left leg and rotated it left and right. The swelling finally left, but she couldn’t bear full weight on it yet. “The nightmares bother me the most.”

Every night images of men and women with gaunt faces and chalky skin stalked towards her all under Raiden’s command. They inched closer and closer with their rusted weapons, with only Bence standing between her and them. The anguish in his eyes engrained into her memories as he wrapped his arms around her. Sounds swam through her ear canal in a scrambled mess. Someone screaming, another person laughing. And beyond Bence were her two sai, digging into his back. Crimson painted these nightmares of her last night in Deran. Her physical wounds were nothing to the despair that crashed and ebbed in response to Bence’s last words.

“Thank you.”

Without warning, Isabel found herself thousands of miles away from the war zone seconds later. The first night she spent in Camilla, Bence’s voice sounded so real in her dreams, it had woken her up.

Wrapping her arms around her legs, Isabel rested her chin on her knees. “I’ve been stuck on this damn island for too long. I need to go home.”

“Queen Isabel, you sustained serious injuries!”

“You can drop the ‘queen’. We aren’t in Deran,” Isabel spat.

Ami tugged at her wooden gauged earring and remained silent. Isabel bowed her head, wondering if she’d been too harsh. Ami had taken her in and nursed her to health without asking for anything in return, but with all her losses, it was hard for Isabel to express her appreciation.

“I’m sorry, Ami. I

“That’s alright. Just give it another day or two. My father is still working to see if he can arrange a vessel for you.”

Isabel squeezed her shoulders up and released, completely out of words.

“I hadn’t had the courage to ask this, but…” Ami gently pulled away. “Tell me more about Bence.”

Shock hit Isabel like a pebble slung between her eyes. “Do you know him?” She’s been relatively vague about Bence in her tale of the Aeonian War, and the chaos caused by resurrected Healers.

Playing with her hands, Ami nodded. Her face flushed pink.

“He left Deran for a time before he sacrificed his life… So, this means, he stopped here,” Isabel began, ticking each thought off with a finger.

Ami twirled her hair in between her fingers, listening intently.

“Well, Bence had a past. He was bred to be a killing machine and commanded the Aeonian army with his parents, Damian and Echidna. He and his family were imprisoned for about two hundred years.”

Ami chocked on her morsel. “That’s impossible,” she grunted as she pounded her chest.

Isabel chewed on her nails, mustering the strength to push words that sluggishly clung to the back of her mouth. “It is. There’s a lot about Deran that would seem magical to others. But he broke free from his parent’s dogma and sided with me. He was a brute, but I saw a sliver of vulnerability beneath that hard carapace of a persona he portrayed.” After pausing, Isabel inched closer to Ami, curiosity itching everywhere. “So, what was Bence doing here?”

“He sought passage to Irelle. I escorted him to Camilla’s most northern port where trade ships sail to that part of the world. And that was that.” She pressed a hand to her cheek.

A twinge of jealousy stirred within Isabel, but she brushed it off.

“He was an insufferable ass,” Ami remarked.

Breaking into chuckles, Isabel rested her utensils on the plate. Grateful for the break in the sullen atmosphere, she recalled happier memories. “I never knew my greatest enemy would become my ally. Did you know, when we first met, he actually broke the casing to my sai, saying he wasn’t afraid of ‘oversized forks’?”

“Yup. Sounds like Bence!” Ami tossed her head back and laughed.

Ami’s silvery voice ironed the jagged edges of Isabel’s anxiety. Whatever Bence had done that fateful night to spare her life was with intention. He wanted her here. Isabel played with the pearl ring once more.

 “You know how I possess the powers of the four elements? That’s what makes Deran so special, and apparently, Bence stole a pearl that granted him powers, too. The sly bastard.”

“What kind of magic? He didn’t mention it when he was with me.”

Isabel flinched at the words with me. “Not sure. Maybe I’ll find out someday.” Studying her reflection in the black pearl, Isabel sighed.

“Ami!” An orotund voice boomed through the main street.

The pair turned around as audible huffing grew louder. People scampered out of the way, revealing a squat man with significant girth waddling toward them. Ami shot onto her feet while Isabel reached for her sai. She racked her brain for his name but only remembered him as the dock master of the Bleeding Heart district.

The man tripped over the hem of a woman’s dress, pulling her backward and along with her clay jar. He stuttered an apology but only managed to snag another fold in her garment. Water sloshed out of the jar, raining down on the woman’s face. Dark make-up streaked from her eyelids.

“What’s wrong?” Isabel shouted, jogging alongside Ami toward the commotion.

“We have Kai waiting at the shore for Ever-Shadows!” Ira rested his hands on his thighs and panted.

“That’s all?” Ami asked through gritted teeth.

“Not just any Kai. They brought the Chief Kai of Deran, saying he’s on the verge of death.”

A wave of panic crashed into Isabel like a tsunami. She sprinted past Ira, shoving everyone out of her way; she had to make it to the dock. If Ira was right, that meant Dover was there. Ignoring Ami’s cries, Isabel turned the corner and charged past a cluster of stone huts with wood-panel roofs.

What happened to Dover? I must save him.

When her shoes met sand, she tugged them off and continued barefoot. Pain forked up her left leg, and she slowed to a limp as she traversed searing hot sand. Ignoring the burning at her heels, she brought her hands to her mouth. “Dover? Dover!”

The last she saw him was on a visit to Kai’s Bay, the southern sector of Deran. A Healer had been assigned to watch over each tribe chief, but Dover seemed to waste away faster under his Healer’s ever-so-watchful eye. Fury boiled at the thought of that leech sucking Dover’s life away.

Four Kai huddled in a circle a hundred feet away, just by the dock. Their fin-like tails twitched back and forth as they quarreled. The largest Kai lifted his head and locked eyes with Isabel.

“Calder? Is that you?” As she slowed to a stop, she fought for words in between ragged breaths.

His rabbit-like ears perked up. “Queen Isabel? What are you doing here?”

“Dover. Is he really here?” Isabel asked, ignoring his question.

Calder’s aquamarine fur stood on end as he stepped back hesitantly. “Yes.”

“Excuse me,” she said to the other three Kai. They gazed at her with rounded, black eyes, void of recognition.

They must be native Kai from the Pekering Islands.

A delicate voice wavered into the air. “Isabel?”

“Dover!” Falling to her knees, she cradled his head. Pearls and chunks of shimmering coral lined Dover’s ears. He wore a necklace laden with sapphires and rubies while bracelets stacked from his paws to his elbows. Isabel caressed Dover’s jaw, examining the infinite creases on his forehead.

“My Queen, I never thought I’d see you again.” He smiled, revealing a broken tooth.

“What happened? Who did this to you?” Each scenario that flew through her mind grew more morbid by the second. “Was it a Healer? Dante?”

“Four? I haven’t seen him in weeks.” Dover’s whiskers drooped, and his body trembled.

“Four?” Calder interjected. “Healers?”

“Four is a name,” Isabel huffed. “This happened after you left Deran.”

Dover hacked, and Isabel squeezed tighter. His heart fluttered rapidly, but it was weak.

“Four said he had business at the castle.” Dover whimpered, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Incoming!” Ami pulled ahead of the procession with an armful of glistening mushrooms.

Isabel shifted Dover onto his side. When his chest stilled, Isabel lurched forward.

“Hold on,” Ami said, examining every inch of his fragile frame.

Isabel bit her lip. She silently prayed that Ami could save him. Dover had been the only tribal chief that believed in her when she was pegged as the awkward, tomboy princess. Everyone else told her she was unfit for the armlet and expressed soul crushing doubt on her suitability as successor to the throne.

“No wounds,” Ami murmured. She put leather gloves on and cracked her knuckles. “Stand back, Isabel. These mushrooms are poisonous to humans.” She ran her thumb over the Ever-Shadows’ caps and smeared the viscous goo under Dover’s nostrils.

The acrid scent drove the humans back a few feet, while the Kai stood indifferently. Isabel wrinkled her nose but refused to budge. She needed to be there for him, as he always had been for her. Dover’s body shuddered, and his breath returned, shaky but present. Ami’s hands continued to work nimbly, digging into the gills from the underside of the mushrooms.

“Mortar and pestle.”

A hand shot out, and Ami snatched it with lightning speed. She dropped the pieces in and ground them into a rubbery consistency. It resembled tripe, making Isabel’s stomach sour. She fought her lunch surging up her throat.

“Okay. Isabel, angle his jaw this way. We have to make sure he swallows it.”

Steeling her nerves, she peeled Dover’s mouth open. A groan escaped his throat and cracked Isabel’s heart. Ami shook the mushroom concoction onto his tongue and retracted her arm quickly. Dover retched and fought Isabel’s grasp.

“Hold on. Please.” A lump formed in her throat as her stomach sank into a quicksand of dread. “You need to eat this.”

Dover’s tail thrashed. He released a high-pitched wail. Each strand of fur stood on end as he trembled violently. Isabel’s arms burned, but she kept them locked.

“Fight it! Dover, you can do this.” Isabel’s voice faltered.

The concoction splattered onto the ground as Dover’s tongue flopped out of the side his muzzle. Hope slipped through Isabel’s fingers as the pallid creature hiccupped incessantly.

“Breathe!” she exclaimed. Tears welled in her eyes.

He responded with faint gurgling. One more hiccup sent bile burning onto Isabel’s hands, then he stilled.

“No!” Isabel hugged Dover’s limp body, desperate to feel a heartbeat. She glanced at Ami for an answer, but she shook her head.

“We were too late,” Ami said, casting her gaze onto her hands. “I was too late.”

“It wasn’t you, my lady.” Calder closed his eyes and bowed his head. He curled his meaty paw around Ami’s shoulder. After squeezing, he turned and faced Isabel. “I’m sorry you had to witness this; however, I believe Dover was happy to see you alive.”

Isabel gently placed Dover down and hugged Calder. Two tears fell.

“Queen Isabel!” His shoulders arched.

“Calder, my hot-tempered Kai. Thank you for taking care of Dover even though you didn’t have to.” She released her hold and wiped her eyes. “Shall we bury him?

“Pardon me, Your Majesty, but we would like to hold a funeral based on Kai tradition.”

“That’s fine.” Isabel turned around to hide her face. The unbreakable resolve kings and queens were supposed to have crumbled at her feet. The crowd dispersed slowly with hunched shoulders. Only Ami stood by her side, her eyes dark.

“Do you know what the cause of death may’ve been?”

Calder grunted. “He was 274 years old, one of the longest living Kai in history- and at the end of his lifespan. I think it was just his time. Maybe it was foolish of us to think we could keep him on this earth.”

 Weaving her fingers together, Isabel sighed. All the tribe leaders of Deran had been affected by the Healers one way or another. She couldn’t accept old age as a reason yet.

 

 


 

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