Ally gazed around, awed by her surroundings. She and Joel walked through an about 50 yard hall, filled with pillars on the left and right. Beyond the pillars were areas where lower ceilings extended, mostly containing tables, which she figured were for big feasts and such. They made their way down the long walkway toward a dais, with seven chairs on it, apparently for a meeting of the council that governed this community. Light shown especially bright, centered on a chair in the middle carved with special designs that Ally had never seen before. She swung her head up—light poured in from outside through holes in the high ceiling. No doubt directed into the hall using polished metal. A wall rose behind the chairs, stopped halfway to the ceiling, before heading into a loft as its floor. Ally saw a couple of dragons sleeping in the loft. She smiled when one of them snored.
Joel turned his head toward her. “What’s so funny?”
“I had no idea that dragons snored like my grandmother.”
Joel chuckled. “Dragons do snore. Usually much louder than people do.”
Ally pointed at the woman who had just seated herself in the center chair. “What is her name again?”
“Kathryn, but everyone calls her Kelly.”
As they drew closer, Kelly’s features came into view. Long, black hair had been tied into a ponytail. Her high cheekbones and narrow but squared jaw gave her the air of a leader. Then Ally saw her piercing, green eyes. They seemed to see right through her.
Joel whispered to Ally, “Follow my lead.” He formed a fist with his right hand and put it to his chest, then bowed. “Greetings, President of the Dragon Council. It is good to see you again.”
Ally did what Joel did, but didn’t say anything, hoping her actions would be sufficient.
Kelly grinned. “It is good to see you again as well, Joel. So reports of a companion in your wanderings are accurate.”
Joel swung his left arm toward Ally. “This is Ally, Ally of Reol. She has a request to make of you.” Joel motioned for her to go ahead and speak.”
Ally cleared her throat. “I’m interested in finding out whether I should bond with a dragon or not. I want to go through whatever test to discover that.”
Kelly nodded. “Let’s talk about this over some coffee and tea.”
Joel winked at Ally.
Once they had received some tea or coffee, depending on the preference of each, Kelly moved from small-talk with Joel to why Ally had come.
Kelly took a sip of her coffee. “First, I should tell you that the life of a guardian or rider is a difficult one, full of danger, lots of traveling, working to find and prevent attacks not only upon us, but also our allies. It can also be a great benefit and the rewards are, as one rider of old put it, ‘out of this world.’”
Kelly smiled and Ally smiled back. Kelly took another sip of her coffee. “Going through the testing used to be much more secretive than it is today. With Cole and Grinoth’s work in opening up the outside world to our existence here—may God have mercy upon their souls—we normally have people come here to go through Shushuma all the time. As a matter of fact, we have one other candidate ready to go through it as well.
Ally asked, “What exactly is Shushuma?”
“Oh, that’s a fancy word for the testing one goes through to be bonded with their dragon.”
“Got it.” Ally smiled real big. “And I’ve recently talked to Co—“
Joel glared at her.
Ally’s mouth hung open for a second before she continued. “That is, I’ve heard a lot of stories about Cole, being that we were from the same town and all.”
“You’ll find some things you’ve been told are accurate, while most are not. Best not to rely upon them.”
Ally opened her mouth, but Joel broke in before Ally could defend herself. “Yes, Kelly is right. You really shouldn’t rely upon old wife's tales.” Joel turned to face Kelly. “Now why don’t you tell her more about Shushuma? I’m . . . I mean, we’re busy people.”
“Joel, you of all people should know how important this is. It should not be rushed.” Kelly stared Joel.
He sighed. “I know, I know. Please, go on.”
“Okay.” Kelly glanced at Ally, then to Joel, then she focused on Ally. “Anyway, the testing is more open than it used to be, so now we go straight to wearing the gloves, as that presents the real test anyway. Once you’ve gone through that, you’ll either come back with a dragon or not, as the case may be.”
Ally nodded with a curl of her lips. “Cool. When do we start?”
Tomorrow morning. Timothy will be going through this with you. Also, it is traditional to have a feast the night before Shushuma. I hope you both can make it. Alley grinned. “I would love to attend.” She turned to face Joel. “We can be there. Right?”
He smiled. “I love the feasts. Of course we’ll be there.”
The smell of a multitude of foods filled the air. The tables bulged with meats, various side dishes, and deserts.
Ally breathed in deep to take in all the flavors through her nose. “Wow! This is what I call a feast.”
Joel, who walked into the Great Hall with her nodded. “The guardians are well known for their feasting, that is true.” He pointed to a couple of empty chairs toward the front of the head table. “I believe that is where we are supposed to sit.”
As they approached, Kelly, who sat at the head of the table stood and motioned to the chairs. “Welcome, our treasured guests.”
Joel bowed to her, so Ally followed Joel’s lead. treasured Ally jerked her head toward Joel. “That wasn’t your voice in my head!”
Joel nodded toward the loft where several dragons sat, having their own feast. “That was one of them.”
“Dragons can mind speak?”
“Sure, though they often don’t intrude on other’s thoughts without permission, save for their own bondling. But I imagine they are just as interested in you as you are in them.”
Ally stole a look at the loft. She mouth dropped when a rather bulky dragon winked at her. “Joel, is that my dragon?”
He laughed. “No telling at this point. That will be decided tomorrow—if you do end up with one.”
She frowned at Joel as she seated herself. “You would have to add that thought.”
He smiled. “Are you that desperate to get away from me? How quickly you change my dear. One hour you are forcing me away from my vacation to be with you, only to seek to leave me once you’ve got me?”
Ally refused to smile back at the angel’s jab. “No, it’s not that. It’s just I need to find out if I’m supposed to be here at all.”
Ally swung around to the guy who sat next to her. A black, short-cut haired young man greeted her. A lanky, but otherwise muscular arm reached out to shake her hand. She took his hand and gave him a firm handshake. “I assume you must be Timothy?”
“Yes. I am.” He swept the room with his eyes. “This is all so exciting, isn’t it?” His eyes stopped moving when he saw the dragons in the loft.
She also gazed at the dragons. “Yes, it is. To think we could be riding one of those fine dragons tomorrow.” The thought was enough to take her heart away to thoughts of flying through the clouds. In her peripheral vision she could see Joel’s frown. He quickly cleared his throat and started chatting with Kelly about something.-
Ally wished she could console the angel, but what if she did end up staying here and he was to go his own way? She shoved such thoughts out of her mind. After all, they would know tomorrow the outcome and she would have to deal with it then. Not now.
She returned her attention to Timothy. “My name is Ally from Reol. Good to meet you.”
His eyes grew wide. “You’re from Reol? That is where Cole is from. Wow! What’s it like living there?”
“Well, there is a big forest surrounding it—very pretty in the fall—and during winter—“
“No, no. I mean what is it like living there in the shadow of such great men like Sikso and Cole?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. What is it like not living with such a history in your town of . . . ?”
“I’m from Dragon’s Inn.”
She chuckled. “And your asking me what it is like?”
He laughed. “I see what you mean. But all my life I’ve felt the pull to be a dragon rider like Cole. I’ve studied him and tried to emulate his life.”
“That’s pretty hard to do, considering the unusual way he started out and the power he had.”
.“I know. Tell me about it. I’ve tried to at least find a wizard that I could study under, but all I’ve got for the effort are a few parlor tricks, not real magic.” Then a big smile crept across his face. “But I’m sure to get a dragon and a power with it. Then I’ll be something.”
Ally nodded, but she turned on her own power of feeling other people’s emotions. Happiness and joy filled soul from all the people in the building, save one. Timothy. From him she felt a lack of confidence. Strange since he came across as a confident man. But she had realized a long time ago the mask people attempt to put on when in public.
Before she could say anything more, Kelly rose and banged an empty cup on the table. She gave an introductory speech to the people seated in the hall. Both her and Timothy stood when requested and someone even sang a song in their honor. Then she ate and chatted some more with Timothy. It was a magical night, especially watching the dragons celebrating in their own unique manner of roaring on occasion and blasting fire into the air. The sight was so powerful that it sent chills up her spine every time they did it.
But the evening eventually wound down and Ally retired for the night, dreaming of riding in the clouds with her own dragon.
The next morning, they sat at one of the tables, eating some type of hash browns with vegetables for breakfast. Surprisingly, they tasted pretty good. Better than she expected. She ate the whole plate. Not only because they were delicious, but because she couldn’t wait to put on those gloves.
Soon, Kelly showed up with a fairly plain box made of some type of wood, Ally wasn’t sure what kind. Kelly opened the box, pulled out a pair of woven metallic gloves. She held them up and said, “Who’s first?”
Timothy’s hand shot up. “I’ll go!”
Ally’s heart bubbled with joy for Timothy, knowing how long he’d waited for this day. She prayed he would get a dragon.
Kelly pointed to a small wooden bench next to her. “Lay here and put your hands up.”
Timothy laid down, quickly but resolutely as if suddenly recognizing the importance of this moment. He stuck his hands into the air. “I’m ready.”
Kelly moved the gloves toward his hands, but stopped short of putting them on. She wrinkled her forehead. “Strange, but something isn’t right here.”
Timothy’s mouth fell open. “You mean, I don’t even get a chance to find out whether I get a dragon?”
Kelly shook her head. “No, you’ll get your chance.” She turned her gaze toward Ally. “It’s just that I’m getting the strong impression that Ally should go first.”
Ally shrugged. “I don’t mind if Timothy goes first.”
Kelly sighed. “It’s not that I think girls should go first, rather I’m getting a strong impression that the, as Joel would say, Big Boss wants you to go first.” Kelly motioned for Ally to lay on the bench.
Ally shifted her view to Joel. He nodded. “I’m getting the same info from upstairs.”
Timothy rose, then sat at the table. His mouth wore a frown while his eyes communicated confusion. “I suppose I’ve waited this long, what is another few minutes?”
Ally stood while mouthing “Sorry” to Timothy, who cracked a small smile in response. She lay on the bench and put her hands into the air. This was it. Now maybe she would discover her purpose in life. The gloves slipped onto her hands, and the room with Joel, Kelly, and Timothy faded into black.
As the world came back into view, she lay in a meadow. She rose and did a 360 to view the area. On the edge of the meadow stood a forest, and a babbling brook ran along the other side, entering the forest at a ninety-degree angle to the line of trees. The surreal glow of the area told her where she now stood: Paradise. “I’ve been here before!”
“Yes, you have,” a familiar voice said. She spun around to see Doodle’s distressed face. “And we need to get you back to Kaylee’s house before you know who realizes you’re here. Why did you wander away again? Do you want Joel to no longer be with you?”
Ally held out her palms toward Doodle. “No, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong. I did put on the gloves this time.”
His mouth formed the shape of an “O.” “So you are here to find a dragon?”
Ally smiled and nodded.
“Well, what do you know? I didn’t think you would convince Joel to let you go through with it.”
Ally shrugged. “He wasn’t too hard to convince. Why do you think that?”
“He, ah . . . he, well, he sort of talked about you a lot.”
“What do you mean that he ‘talked about me a lot’? What did he say?”
Doodle’s face flushed. “I’ve already said too much. But it was all positive. The way he went on about you at the poker game before you whisked him away, I just didn’t think he would be so keen on you getting a dragon, is all.” After a moment of silence, Doodle said, “If you’re here to get a dragon, then follow me to the stream.”
Ally went with Doodle while wondering at the words he’d spoken about what Joel had said. No wonder he acted the way he did when she mentioned coming here.
Once they reached the brook, Doodle stopped and pointed downstream. “You follow the river to a small lake. Then wait there, and eventually you’ll meet your dragon.”
“How long is ‘eventually’?”
Doodle shrugged. “How long is eventually in Paradise? Who knows, there’s no time here. Just wait there, someone will be along . . . eventually.”
Ally nodded. “See you later.”
“I certainly hope so.”
She smiled, then turned to head downstream. As she entered the forest, she marveled at how the light didn’t change. In her world, trees offered shade from the sun in a forest. Here, however, everything gave off light—plants, rocks, the ground, all animals, even herself—so that there was no need for a sun. She strolled through tall trees that reminded her of Brownwood trees back home. They towered, she figured, about 75 yards into the air. Finally, she came to a lake. A distant shore in the background indicated, at least to her, that this wasn’t a “small” lake. She sat on a log by the shore and watched the water lap onto the shoreline.
Ally waited for eventually to arrive, and it eventually did in the form of bubbling waters. The bubbles grew to a gush of bubbles, then a water column shot into the air. On the top of the column stood a lady dressed in dazzling light. She held aloft a sword, a flaming sword, much like Joel’s. Then she tossed the sword toward Ally. Ally ducked to form a ball. The sword stabbed into the ground beside her.
Then the water column started sinking. Ally stood up and said, “Wait, don’t go. Someone has to tell me what this means!” Despite her pleas, the angelic creature sank into the waters until the lake swished with the small waves of water washing over the shoreline.
Ally huffed, then stepped around the flaming sword in a circle. After a moment, she decided she was intended to pick up the sword. She reached her hand out grab the hilt.
Echoed inside her head. She jerked her hand back and scanned the area. A dragon stood before her, about twenty feet high. Fat body, small head, the classical fire-breathing dragon type. He—assuming it was a he—had folded his wings up alongside his body. He was definitely intimidating.
“Are you my dragon?” Ally sat back down on the log.
The dragon sat on his haunches. “Maybe, maybe not. That depends on what you choose.” He pointed his tale at the sword. “If you pick up the sword, you’ll stay with the angel. If you do not, you’ll stay with me.”
Ally stood and started pacing back and forth as she talked. “But I came here so I wouldn’t have to choose. I wanted to know what God wants me to do. I wanted to know my purpose in life.”
“Those are two different questions. What God wants you to do has nothing to do with it. It is what God wants you to be, and who you are to affect in your doing that gives one purpose. You could serve God and others equally either way, by staying with Joel or going with me. There is only one catch if you go with me, you will lose your ability to sense what others are feeling.”
“Because you’ll get a new ability when you join with me.”
The dragon laughed, sort of. “If I knew that, I would be God.”
Ally huffed. “So I’m supposed to make a decision here without all the facts. A decision I had hoped to avoid.”
“That is your decision as to what you should do with your life. It is God’s decision as to how you fulfill his plan by what you do.”
Ally thought for a second. “But for God to be able to do that, he would have to know what I’m going to choose? Even before I know what I will choose.”
The dragon smiled.
“So, you are saying that God knows what I am going to choose, and based on what I choose, he predestines me to a certain purpose?”
The dragon nodded. “You’ve got it. Though, in reality, we all have the same basic purpose.”
Another voice sounded behind Ally. “Hey, what are you doing here? I just left you in the Great Hall.”
She turned to spot Timothy standing by the shore. “I don’t know. We can’t be wearing the same pair of gloves at the same time, can we?” She turned back toward the dragon.
The dragon roared with laughter. “You of all people, Ally of Reol, should know that time is mutable in Paradise.”
She examined the dragon. “I suppose so. It was just so unexpected.” Her eyes grew wide. “I know what I should do!”
The dragon smiled as only a dragon can do. “I knew you’d figure it out.”
Timothy glanced between them. “What are you two talking about? I don’t even know where here is?”
She had been brought here to help Timothy, more than herself. That’s why she had to go first. Ally turned on her emotional connection and focused on Timothy. “You’re not looking at this correctly. It isn’t what great power one has or what great accomplishments you can do that gives one purpose, rather it is following the first and second greatest commandment in Scriptures: to love God and to love each other as yourself. That is what God’s purpose and plan is for each of us. We choose what we will do . . . ” She reached over and grabbed the hilt of the sword and pulled it into the air. “But God works through us and what we do to help us fulfill the greatest commandments.”
Timothy stared in awe at Ally as the flaming sword lit up the area even more, if possible, than it already was. “Wow, you’re right!”
“And now that Ally has made her choice, you also have a choice, Timothy.” The dragon shot flames into the air with a great roar. “If you choose to bond with me, you will serve in the kitchen and cleanup maintenance for the rest of your days. If you don’t, then you don’t. However, you will become an apprentice to a wizard and become a great wizard much like Josh. But, you will not have a dragon with you. What do you choose?”
Timothy’s head bowed as he mumbled, “The kitchen? Cleanup? I could have done that at home.” Then he raised his head. “But then, I would not be bound to a dragon either. And I’ve dreamed about that, have planned for it.” Timothy walked to the shore and stared out across the water for about a minute or two. Then he turned around and walked up to the dragon. “What is your name?”
“I thought you’d never ask. But before I tell you, what is your decision?”
Timothy smiled. “I choose bonding with you.”
The dragon roared. “I’m glad you have chosen me. You will not regret it.”
Timothy cocked his head to the side. “Why?”
“Because, my name is Grinoth.”
Timothy’s eyes grew wide. “Grinoth! Cole’s dragon! But I thought he had gone onto a different world?”
“He did.” The dragon smiled. “I am Grinoth, Jr.”
Timothy shook his head. “I can’t believe it!” Then Timothy dashed to the dragon and hugged his leg.
Grinoth caught Ally’s eye as she stared at them and winked at her. She winked back.
All went black, to be followed by a return of the Great Hall, and an astonished angel’s wide eyes staring at her.
She rose to a sitting position and took off the gloves, handing them to Kelly. She scanned the area, but saw no dragon. Timothy still sat where he’s sat when she went to Paradise. Apparently for him, what she’d experienced was still in his future. “Joel, why are you staring at me like that?”
Joel pointed at her. “You came back with something.”
“What?” She stood and a rattling noise came from her left. She glanced around until her eyes saw what made the noise: a sheath with a sword in it. She reached for the hilt.
Joel held out a hand. “Don’t remove it. We need to discuss this in private.”
“Okay, let’s go now.”
Timothy lay down on the bench, the gloves slid on him and he appeared to become unconscious.
Joel nodded toward Timothy. “Don’t you want to find out how Timothy fairs?”
She stepped toward the door. “I already know how he fairs.” She glanced up at Joel. “Timey-shifting stuff, you know.”
Once they were outside, and strolling among the trees Joel said, “Does that sword, perchance, burst into flames when you pull it out?”
“Why yes it does. Hey, you want to see?” She reached for the hilt.
Joel held up a hand. “No. I know what a flaming sword looks like.” He firmly grabbed Ally by her shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. “Only angels carry flaming swords.”
“Are you suggesting that I’m an angel now?”
“Either that, or some angel in inventory is out of a job today.”
“Well, I did have a watery tot throw the sword at me.”
Joel cracked a smile.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“It’s from another world. You wouldn’t understand.” Joel mouth changed from a smile to a more serious demeanor. “You are now, an angel for sure, with angel powers. Though I don’t know if you are human or not still. This is a first, an unprecedented move.”
Ally smiled. “So I can go to Paradise whenever I want?”
“You could live there.”
“And I can go anywhere and anytime like you can?”
“I would believe so.”
“Race you to your house!” Then Ally disappeared in a flash of light.
Joel shook his head as he gazed into the sky. “Are you sure this was a good move? Really?” He, likewise, disappeared as light dimmed in his wake