a week later as the Hunters relax around a campfire en route to Four Corners
"...and then our ship almost crashed against the coast and I thought for sure we were going to die and then the captain..."
"We're going to be spending a lot of time together from here on, so maybe you could tell us your entire life's story in parts, not all at once." Chris was trying very hard not to explode, but it was difficult. The kid had been talking nonstop for days.
"Uh, sure. Sorry. I guess I have been talking a lot. I'm just excited is all."
Buck was starting to take a liking to JD. Yes, sir. Few people had the ability to make those veins in Chris's forehead pop out like that. Sooner or later Larabee was going to blow. He just hoped he was around for the show.
While JD's incessant chatter was starting to get on his nerves, too, Josiah did find his youthful exuberance refreshing. "Perhaps we could get to know you better by asking questions instead?"
JD brightened. "Sure! What do you want to know?"
There was something Nathan had been wondering about. "You said you loved working with dragons, so why did you leave Belen? Especially to come to Itreya. It's not like Itreya's right next to Belen."
"Well...after my ma died things just weren't the same. I went to an oracle for advice and..."
Buck snorted in disbelief. He couldn't help it. "An oracle? You went to an oracle for advice? You can't be that gullible! Everybody knows most oracles are just con artists."
JD bristled. "Maybe in Itreya. In Belen, they know what they're doing."
Buck was still smirking. "Sure, Kid."
"Anyway...she told me my destiny was in Itreya."
"So you packed up your things, hopped a ship, and braved the rocky Copra Sea for months just because some oracle told you to?"
Buck pushed JD's hat down over his eyes.
"You really are gullible."
Josiah put a firm grip on the back of Buck's neck. "Perhaps you shouldn't be so quick to scoff at the magics of other realms. This oracle sent JD to us just when we needed him. If he'd ignored her, he wouldn't have come and gotten Called when he touched the shores of Itreya. It was destiny, my friend."
Buck rolled his eyes. "Sometimes it's just dumb luck or coincidence."
"A coincidence that we needed a dragon expert and one miraculously appears from another country? It was fate."
Vin nodded in agreement. "Seen a lot of fake oracles here in Itreya, but some places they're dead on. Elven oracles are always right. You just have to figure out the crazy riddles and such they give you. Them elves never tell you anything straight out."
Nathan looked thoughtful. "I'm from Kandigar myself, JD. It's a desert kingdom to the east. If a Kandigaran seer gives you advice, you'd better take it."
JD looked smug.
"Aw. I still think oracles are a lot of hooey."
Josiah patted JD on the back good-naturedly. "Don't listen to him, Son. Buck is often full of hot air. Now, JD. I'm curious as to what gift Itreya gave you. You said King Michael already told you about our abilities, but he didn't tell us about yours. What do you do?"
"Oh, I talk to animals. I was always good with them before, but now they really understand what I'm saying. I can't control them or anything, just talk to them."
"Do they talk back?"
"Sure. And I know what they're saying, too."
"That could be handy with a dragon."
JD frowned. "You don't need me to talk to a dragon. They can talk just like regular folks."
A few of the men stopped to stare at him.
"Sure. Most of the dragons in Belen are smarter than the people. I don't know why it wouldn't be the same here. Itreyan dragons are like cousins to Belenite dragons."
"If dragons in Belen are so smart, why are they carting knights around like horses?"
JD looked hurt and insulted. "They're not slaves or anything! They don't have to stay if they don't want to. They can leave anytime. The dragons work with the knights to protect the country. They got driven out of Palati in the north and settled in Belen. But the giants that chased them out had been attacking us for a while, too. The dragon elder made a treaty with the Belen king and we've all been working together ever since. The dragons and knights are partners--most of them are best friends, too. The dragons told me they like it in Belen. There's plenty of food, warm places to sleep, sunshine, friends, and fun things to do. When I was a little kid, me and the other servant boys and girls got to play with the baby dragonets."
"I'm sorry, Kid. I didn't mean to bad-mouth your home country or anything."
Nathan nodded. "We just don't know much about Belen, JD. We get trade goods over here every once in a great while--stuff like spices and textiles, but we don't hear much about the people and customs."
"That's okay. Most people in Belen think Itreya's full of goblins and elves and evil magic."
Buck glanced sidelong at Chris, noting the slight flinch at the mention of goblins. "Well, Kid. We're on fairly friendly terms with most of the elf clans, but we do have problems with goblins. If you stick with us, you'll probably end up in a fight or two with them. As for evil magic... Well, I guess you can find that sort of thing just about anywhere. There's something about the magic of the land itself here that keeps out the worst things, though."
"The land itself?"
Chris stopped and looked around him at the sky, the trees, the birds. Sarah used to believe in the power of the land. Chris wasn't sure what he believed anymore. "Some people say Itreya's alive, JD."
JD looked down at the ground nervously. "Alive?"
Josiah chuckled at JD's reaction. "Not alive like you or me, but something like a spirit maybe. Or at least an awareness. It's the magic of Itreya that Called us all to the castle to become Hunters. Itreya's magic also Called Michael to the throne. It seems to also keep the most blackest evils from our borders--dark mages, shadow wraiths, zombies and the like."
Chris gave him a dark look. "Not all the blackest evils."
"It does what it can. As do we all."
JD had the feeling he was missing something. "So the land picks the ruler and its protectors?"
"That's kind of weird."
"Not any weirder than having your kingdom protected by a bunch of flying lizards, Kid."
JD smiled at that. "Guess not."