“ENGINE FAILURE” flashed red on Kajik’s console. He only glanced at it as he struggled to keep his space cruiser level. “Engine Failure” was an understatement; there was no engine. His ship was careening out of control, hurtling toward the planet below. His little sister, Zofie, screamed as another blast ripped through their ship. Kajik snarled and checked the monitor displaying the stars and universe around the ship. Sleek ship hulls gleamed silver in the glow of the planets orbiting in the night sky. They were still being pursued by the class 7 Alaryn Destroyers, though they had stopped wasting plasma bolts on Kajik’s smoking ship. He had already ejected the escape pods, hoping to distract the destroyers. The destroyers had immediately vaporized the pods and continued their pursuit of Kajik’s vessel. The pods only had minimal armor; that was the only reason Kajik hadn’t already abandoned ship. The Alaryn Empire had conquered a galaxy, obliterating any planet that had dared defy them. Kajik focused on the planet below him. If he could reach that planet, the growing Alaryn Empire would be utterly destroyed.
The planet loomed larger in his scanner. Their speed was increasing.
Kajik tried maneuver his ship so that it would crash into what his scanner labeled “The Static Realms.” According to Jon’Arikk mythology, The Static Realms was where the Vala-Nar dwelled. The Vala-Nar were immortals that supposedly lived in a timeless city in the lush forests below.
Zofie screamed again as another shot shook the ship.
Kajik locked the steering into position, praying that his aim was true. He left the cockpit, going to his sister who was covering her ears and squeezing her eyes shut. He sat down beside her and took one hand. She looked at him, a scared little tear escaping down her cheek. Kajik forced a smile and squeezed her hand. “Remember where we’re going?”
Zofie nodded and whispered, “We’re going to find the Protector.”
“And who is the Protector?”
“T-the most powerful being alive.”
“And what will the Protector do?”
“The Protector will save us from the Alaryns.” Zofie swallowed fearfully and looked at her brother. “But what if we don’t find the Protector in time?”
Kajik frowned in mock severity before giving her a comforting hug. “Don’t think like that. The Protector will save us.” He buckled himself in beside her, and he took her hand. She looked at him, eyes wide, fearful, but trusting. Kajik continued to speak over the blaring alarms, “When darkness descends, when monsters awake, when all is lost, seek the one who protects.”
Zofie’s quavering voice joined her brother’s in the familiar legend of their home. “The Vala-Nar keep the secret. The Static Realm keeps the Vala-Nar. Go. Go. Go. Find the Protector, ask for help. You shall not be denied.”
The ship began to quake. Kajik glanced toward the scanner and saw the orange glow of fire. They were entering the atmosphere. He silently wrapped his arms around his sister, offering what protection he could. He was still holding her when they crashed.
The next thing he knew, he was waking up in a glass tube buried under hoses and wires. An oxygen mask sat over his mouth and nose, sending cool, clean air into his burning lungs. He could wriggle, struggle, but all of his movements were weak. His whole body hurt, but he was alive. Was Zofie? Where was he? Who had saved him?
Two black, blurry shapes came into view. They milled around the background until Kajik mustered enough strength to tap the glass. The shapes stopped moving for a minute, then they turned to the tube.
“I think he’s awake,” a muffled, feminine voice said. It seemed to come from the smaller of the black blurs.
“It’s about time,” An equally muffled male voice said, coming from the larger blur. “I would like to know why there’s Alaryn Destroyers hovering above my kingdom!”
The blurs got larger, and there was a hiss as the glass lid slid open. Standing over him was the most beautiful woman in the galaxy. Her hazel eyes were bright and large with peaceful happiness, and her smile was overflowing with laughter. Her dark brown hair fell in gentle waves across her heart-shaped face, tickling the dimples that creased her cheeks. She wore a black sleeveless shirt with a high collar, and an equally black skirt that had a matching sheen. She wore a jeweled rose around her neck, and at her hip was an ancient sword.
Standing a little behind her was a tall, lithe man with ragged black hair and an angled face. His blue eyes were narrowed distrustfully, and his thin lips were drawn tight. He wore clothes that matched the woman, but he had no necklace. At his hip was a sword just as ancient as the woman’s, but it seemed to have a deadlier gleam.
“How are you feeling?” The woman asked Kajik as she gently removed his mask.
“Who are you?” The man demanded. “What brought you to Rafferty?”
“Karran,” the woman said sharply. “Give him a chance to breathe before interrogating him.” She turned back to Kajik. “I’m Alli, and this is my husband, Karran. We saw your ship crash, and we pulled you out from the wreckage. Your ship was an Arikk M3 model, right? That’s what our computers identified it as. But Jon-Arikk is so far away. What would bring Arikkonites this far out into the galaxy?”
“Zofie,” Kajik croaked.
The woman frowned in confusion. “Zofie? Oh, is that the girl we found you with? She’s right here beside you. No, don’t turn your head. I think there might be something wrong with your spine. I don’t want you to agitate it unnecessarily. Zofie is resting. She’ll be up in no time.”
Kajik wanted to look at his sister, to see her, make sure she was all right. He also wanted to know how close they were to the Vala-Nar. “Vala-Nar,” he croaked hoarsely. “Where Vala-Nar?”
“Vala-Nar?” Karran repeated, his scowl deepening. “What do you want with the Vala-Nar?”
“Help,” Kajik croaked. “Help find Protector.”
“Protector,” the woman mused. “Do you think he means–?”
Karran snorted. “Who else could he mean, Alli? ZD?”
Alli smiled and shook her head. “Protector isn’t one of titles I’m familiar with, though.”
“Must be a Jon-Arikk thing.” He shrugged and turned away. “Does she even do spaceships?”
“Is there anything she doesn’t do? The least we can do is ask. I think she’d be offended if we didn’t. I’ll call her up on the port screen.”
Alli went over to the fireplace and pressed one of the round stones of the hearth. A computer console slid out from the bricks and flashed red, then the red narrowed into a single dot. Karran came to stand behind Alli, his arms folded over his chest.
Kajik watched them, processing what was happening into information. “You’re—the Vala-Nar?”
Alli turned to give a quick, flourishing bow. “The Eternally Cursed? That’s us. Welcome to the Static Realm.”
The red dot widened again, and this time the image changed to a teenage girl with long black hair and an oval face sitting erect in a black chair. Her amber eyes penetrated the depths of the computer screen, her high cheek bones gave her a noble look, and her thin lips made her look severe. There was also something strange about her skin; it had an inhuman quality to it. She seemed to be too skinny, not properly filling the sleeveless red top she wore.
“Hello, Kenzie,” Alli said. “Is your mother home?”
Kenzie’s eyes flicked curiously to where Kajik lay. “Whatever it is, are you sure it needs my mother? I’m pretty good at stuff. I can heal. I can blow up stuff.”
“He specifically asked for the Protector,” Karran said.
“Jon-Arikk then.” Kenzie sighed. “I’ll patch you through.” Her fingers clacked against a glass keyboard, and the screen split to show a second woman.
This woman was balancing a young child on her hip, and she looked barely older than the first girl. She had her black hair tied back into a simple ponytail, which accented her high cheek bones and large brown eyes. Around her neck was a red jewel that glimmered like fire. The woman surveyed the scene and her heart-shaped lips parted into a large smile when she saw the Vala-Nar before her.
“Alli! Karran!” the woman cried. “How are you doing? It’s been a century or so since I’ve heard from you.”
Karran nodded. “Yes, it has, and it looks like you’ve kept yourself busy. Is that a new one you’re holding?”
“How large was his clutch?” Alli asked.
The woman sighed wearily, but there was love and laughter as she replied, “There were only twelve in his clutch. Zantin says I need to pick up the slack, but I think even Railix is having trouble keeping track of all of our children’s names and locations. I’m pretty sure this is Trey.” She looked at the boy who was contentedly gnawing on his fist. “Are you Trey?”
The boy, who was no older than three, paused in his gnawing long enough to nod.
“Trey,” Alli murmured thoughtfully. “Short for–?”
“Tréjamé. You caught me. After having eighty children, I’m starting to run out of names.” The woman laughed and kissed Trey’s forehead fondly. “But I’m sure you didn’t call me just to catch up on my growing brood. Is something wrong?”
“Does something have to be wrong for us to call an old friend?” Alli asked mildly.
“An ancient friend,” the woman corrected. “And I very rarely receive social calls. What’s the problem?”
“We have twenty Alaryn Destroyers hovering above our atmosphere,” Karran explained impatiently. “And there’s a man here asking for the Protector.”
“The Protector,” the woman mused thoughtfully. “That’s my name in the Jon-Arikk system. I like that planet. They have red trees and purple grass. Why does he want me?”
“He’s asking for help.”
The woman stiffened and looked toward the other screen. “Kenzie, I need you to take Trey to your father. He should be in the Böchard with Uncle Kryptin and Auntie Drax with the others.”
Kenzie slouched in her chair sulkily. “That’s what I thought you’d say.” Her screen cut out, as did the Protector’s.
A minute later, a red portal opened in front of the fireplace, and the Protector stepped into the room. She looked around for a brief second, spotted Kajik, and went to him.
Kajik watched her with confusion and growing interest. Could this young woman really be the Protector? The legends never said the Protector was beautiful, or that she was a girl.
The Protector stopped over him, her eyes changing from green to brown in sympathy for his plight. She took a deep breath and placed her hand on his forehead. Fire ran down her arm and spread out through her hand. Kajik didn’t feel the heat, instead, he felt his pain leave his body as his bones mended and his wounds healed. He inhaled, filling his lungs easily without aid. It felt good. He wriggled his fingers. They didn’t hurt. He looked at the Protector as she pulled her hand away from his head and smiled.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m the Protector. What do you need?”
Kajik sat up. The room spun slightly, but the vertigo quickly subsided. “I need your help. Legend says you can help.”
The Protector nodded. “I can. What do you need?”
“The Alaryns have destroyed Jon-Arikk. My sister, Zofie, and I are the only survivors.” He started at his sister’s name and whirled around for her.
Zofie was lying under tubes much like Kajik had been, her strawberry blonde hair damp with sweat. Kajik knelt beside her and took her hand, choking back a despairing sob. The Protector knelt beside him and placed her hand on Zofie’s forehead. Fire spread from her arm again, bathing Zofie in a fiery glow. Kajik regarded the Protector hopefully, squeezing his sister’s hand comfortingly. After a moment, the Protector’s fire faded, and she removed her hand. Zofie’s breathing came easy, and her expression seemed to relax.
“It’ll be easier for her to recover if she’s asleep,” the Protector explained. “Now, please, continue. I’d like to be home for dinner.”
“The Alaryns destroyed Jon-Arikk, but Zofie and I were able to escape. There were legends on our world of the Protector, and how he—she—would help if she was asked. The Alaryns pursued us here and shot us down above the atmosphere. The Alaryns are monsters. They’ve destroyed five planets—five whole worlds—because they refused to surrender. That’s why they destroyed Jon-Arikk.”
The Protector frowned, green mixing in her brown eyes. “Why didn’t you contact me sooner? I could have stopped this before your world was lost.”
Kajik’s shoulders sagged dejectedly. “You were just a legend. We tried everything else, but then you became all we had. Please, Protector, I know it’s too late for Jon-Arikk, but it’s not too late for Zofie. She should be able to grow up without being afraid that her planet will blow up. Will you help us?”
“Ask for help, and you shall not be denied.” She stood and faced the Vala-Nar. “I’ll start by clearing the space above Oran. Got a spaceship I can play with?”
Alli shook her head and elbowed Karran pointedly. “The old geezer here doesn’t like all the newfangled tech. He’s still stuck on horses. The only spaceship we have is the one he crashed,” she pointed at Kajik. “I had the wreckage brought into our courtyard.”
Karran shook his head despairingly. “I just don’t see the point in it all. Every time you get used to the new tech, something newer and tech-ier comes out.”
The Protector laughed. “You’re such an old man, Karran! Show me to the wreckage.”
The Vala-Nar led the Protector and Kajik out into the courtyard. His beautiful, proud Arikk M3 was little more than a torn lump of metal. The hull was smashed, the engines were shredded, and the wings were bent into foreign shapes. The only thing he could see his ship being good for was scrap metal. However, the Protector circled the M3 appraisingly.
“What was it?” She asked curiously, looking at the crumpled wings.
Karran looked at her skeptically. “You don’t recognize it?”
The Protector gave him a look and snorted derisively. “You think I have time to memorize every ship in the multi-universe, and what it looks like smashed while juggling a very large family and saving every planet in crisis?”
“It was an Arikk M3,” Kajik said numbly. “The last remnants of my home.”
The Protector looked at him sympathetically. Then she opened the silver dragon head on her black cuff and said clearly, “Display Arikk M3.” A holographic simulation appeared beneath the dragon head and rotated for a 360 view. The Protector studied it for a minute then looked back at the wreck.
Kajik jumped in surprise. Before his eyes, his ship was pulling itself back together. The tears closed themselves, the engines rebuilt, and the wings straightened. Within a matter of five minutes, his Arikk M3 was whole again. There wasn’t a scratch, there wasn’t a seam, nor was there a smudge on its hull. It sparkled and gleamed as if it had been polished. The engine hummed to life, and the door slid open with a quiet hiss. Inside, the lights flicked on smoothly, revealing the sterile sheen of the chic interior. It even smelled new.
The Protector polished her knuckles smugly on her shirt and glanced at Kajik, waiting for his reaction.
Kajik staggered forward and touched the hull. It felt smooth and cool. When he removed his hand, he could see the smudge of his fingerprints. It was real. He looked at the Protector in astonishment. “How did you do that?”
She winked. “With my brain. Now,” she strode quickly up the ramp and into the ship, “shall we deal with those pesky Alaryns?”
Kajik quickly jogged into the ship, but then he glanced back at the Vala-Nar. They remained where they were. Alli’s eyes wandered up wishfully, but she shook her head as she snuggled into Karan’s arms. Karran looked at her, a look of pure love crossing his face. Kajik looked back toward the palace, his eyes trailing to the window where Zofie slept.
“I’ll be back for my sister,” he promised.
“We’ll take good care of her,” Karran returned.
Kajik swallowed hard and closed the door before sitting at the control console.
The Projector was already there, apparently talking to someone over her earcomm. “Don’t worry,” she was saying, “I’ll be home before dinner. I’ll even make pizza. Oh please. Five thousand years is not long enough to get tired of pizza. Pizza is forever.” She laughed and turned to Kajik. “Ready? Then take us out, captain.”
Kajik punched in coordinates. The turbines roared to life, and Kajik pulled back on the wheel. The port screen showed the castle zooming out of sight, the trees getting smaller and smaller, and the Static Realm quickly vanished from sight. He could see the pangea of Oran, the twenty-seven kingdoms blurring into one united landmass, and the only distinction was made by the Ëlonian walls that separated them from the rest of their world. Then all that surrounded them was stars and the hazy mist of the spiral galaxy. And twenty armed Alaryn Destroyers.
The Protector sat up in her chair and studied the display with interest. She pulled a beetle-like gadget from her pocket and placed it on the dashboard. The bug plugged itself into the system, and a holographic projection appeared, hovering over the dashboard. The screen split into nineteen min-screens and one primary screen. Kajik guessed that the primary screen was designated for the flagship. The Protector plugged a sequence into the bug and faced the screens with a confident smile.
“Question,” she said calmly, “just who you think you are?”
Kajik wondered if she understood Alarainian—one of the most difficult languages in the universe—but when the Alarainian captain responded, it was in the common tongue. Kajik glanced at the bug thing and guessed that it was responsible for the translation.
The ship’s captain raised an eyebrow. “If you represent the Oranian planet, then I demand that you surrender it and all your assets to the empire. If you do not, your planet will be destroyed.”
The Protector leaned back and regarded the diplomat. “How many planets have you destroyed?”
The diplomat looked smug. “We have destroyed such prominent plants as Aluqtwar 7, Kalen, CeJarkan, Ozarko, and Jon-Arikk. Do not think that your planet can withstand our might when these planets have not.”
The Protector counted on her fingers. “So that’s one, two, three, four, five planets you’ve destroyed. Amateurs. You’re looking at the monster who destroyed ten.”
The diplomat stiffened in his chair. “What is the meaning of this? There have been no such planets destroyed. If there was, we would have heard of it!”
“It was before your time, but even so, I’m surprised you haven’t heard of me.”
“Who are you?”
She leaned forward. “I have many names, from many galaxies, from many ages, for many reasons. Let’s see if you can recognize a few of them. I am the Protector of Jon-Arikk, I am Stone Fire, Stone Blood, the Catalyst, Earth Breaker, Fire Starter, Curse Caster, Oathbreaker, the Rebel, Bloodwing, the Obliterator, Black Demon, Heart Fire, Defender of the Realms, the Great Healer, the Dragon Queen. I am Kelaino, the Shadow Weaver, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
With each new name the Protector listed, the Alarainian diplomat got a little paler. Even Kajik regarded his companion with a new fear and respect. He recognized many of the names, especially “Kelaino.” She had been an unstoppable terror more than four thousand years ago, but she had disappeared after the destruction of her tenth world. People had hoped she had died. Who could believe that she had merely become a mother and a hero?
Kelaino stood as she faced the diplomat. “There are a few planets that I have taken a special interest in and have placed my personal protection over. You got lucky enough to blast one of them and live, and now you’re threatening to blow a second?” Her eyes were glowing green, and there was a strain of amber spiraling toward her iris. “No one is that lucky. No one gets to hurt the people I love.”
Kajik’s eyes turned to the screen, and he watched in horror as one by one, the crew members turned to stone. It started with the lowest ranking, their feet turning to stone first, then it crept up their bodies until they were solid. The Alarainians began screaming, trying to get away, but how could they run with stone shoes?
The diplomat fell to his knees, weeping bitterly. “Please, Kelaino, I beg of you! Have mercy! Mercy!”
“I am merciless!” Kelaino snapped. “How many children were on those planets? How many women? How many men? How many hopes and dreams, how many loves did you end? No. There is no mercy for you.” She sat back and watched as the last color on the diplomat’s face turned gray.
Kajik felt sick as he looked at the monster beside him, the Alarainian’s screams still ringing in his ears. “How could you pass judgment on them when you admitted that your crimes are so much worse?”
Kelaino faced him calmly. Her eyes were a light brown, gentle and kind. Misleading. “Was I wrong in my judgment? Isn’t this what you wanted?”
“No! —y-yes.” He bowed his head in shame. “But what about all the words that you destroyed? Where’s the justice for those worlds?”
She regarded him for a moment. “The story you’re asking for is ancient and long. Yes, I destroyed ten worlds, but I only ever killed one person. It has been four thousand years since the shadow of the tenth prophecy was on me. And believe me, I have paid the price for what I have done. The would-be empire builders are lucky.”
“Lucky to be dead?”
Kelaino smiled. “Who says they’re dead?” She glanced at the port screen, staring at the statues. She didn’t seem bothered by the frozen looks of terror and remorse. “I can reverse the stoning at any time, but I think I’ll let them stay like that for a couple of centuries.” She shut off the projector and pocketed the bug. “You have a choice now. You can go back to Oran with Alli and Karran and Zofie, or you can take Zofie and go to another planet. I know several very good ones with good people and dragons. The best worlds always have dragons. Or I can rebuild Jon-Arikk, and you and Zofie can restart your civilization. Well, I can rebuild the rocky parts of Jon-Arikk. The flora, fauna, and aqua—and an atmosphere—will be supplemented by Mid-Realm Academy. I’ll also be having them pick up my statues.”
Kajik stared at her disbelievingly. “You can rebuild Jon-Arikk?”
“Not the people, just the planet, and possibly the buildings. Might take an hour. Just let me have dinner first.” She pushed away from the console and stood.
Kajik felt happier than he had in years. Then he looked at the monster, the Protector, Kelaino. She boggled his mind, standing there, so young, so beautiful, so kind, and so generous. One question burned his soul, and he had to ask before she vanished to whatever realm could contain her. “What changed you from Kelaino to the Protector?”
“The better question is what changed me to Kelaino in the first place.” She fiddled with her ring and looked away distractedly. “That’s another ancient and long story. The short answer is love. There was a man whom I loved very dearly, and I thought I had lost him. It drove me mad. Then he found me, drove the madness and darkness away, and I returned to the name I loved most.”
“And what name is that?” Kajik pressed.
She smiled. “Cassie.”
Then she twisted her ring, opening a portal in his ship. She walked through the portal and into a room filled with books. Kajik could see a large group, headed by a man in red robes. Cassie ran to him and kissed him, before gathering Trey into her arms. She glanced back at Kajik, winked, and the portal closed.