Because she’d been so caught up in in the conversation, Emma hadn’t paid attention to the wonderful landscape that they had passed in the blue CRV. She was surprised to find that the cobblestoned road was long gone and was replaced with a sandy path. The leaves on the trees were bright green and bright yellow. The trunks of the trees were bright brown. Everything was bright here.
Neola was driving the CRV very slowly and the trees were gradually replaced by large stones and short hills. Actually, the hills were so short that they couldn’t be considered hills but the Felicians stubbornly insisted that the small mounds of land were hills and who was there to argue?
Finally, Neola stopped in front of a hill which was covered by a large boulder. Other stones were littered around it too. All in all, it looked as ordinary as Charlie and Emma did.
The three got out of the car. Emma arched an eyebrow at Neola. “Nice place you’ve got.”
Neola pursed her lips and ignored her. She walked towards the large boulder and knocked three times. Each knock emitted a deep hollow sound. Emma jogged to Neola’s and placed her hand on the rock. It had a rough, natural texture. There was nothing to suggest how such a weird sound could be produced. Suddenly, a small hole opened up near her head. Neola pushed her face to it and whispered, “Shut thy mouth.”
The boulder rolled aside silently and disappeared into a slit at the side of the hill revealing a wizened old man. His appearance was as rough as the supposed rock which had covered the hill but when his eyes fell on Neola, a grin broke across his face which was like a ray of light in the darkest room you can imagine. The man was followed by a curly-haired boy with a sullen expression on his lilac face. The old man told the boy, “You know what to do,” and clapped the boy on the shoulder.
The boy cracked his knuckles and slouched off to the CRV, revved up the engine in an unnecessarily loud manner, and drove it away, taking his time while doing it.
“Long time no see, eh, Neola?” the old man said. He held his arms open and embraced her. She was much taller than him but his smile lifted him higher than the clouds. “Come on in.” Then he caught sight of Charlie and Emma and he hesitated. “Who’re they?”
“Friends, Erasmus,” Neola replied quickly. “I’m sure Murlyn will be fine with it. Trust me.”
The man looked doubtful of this but he finally pointed inside the hill. “Go ahead.”
The sight that awaited them was a cozy one. As Emma scurried after Neola, she forgot her cranky mood and couldn’t help feeling at home. It was dark and lit by several light bulbs attached to the walls. She could see up ahead that the hollow inside the hill was small. There were two women and a man debating fervently in a corner. Nearby, a larger group of people were writing, occasionally lifting their heads up to clarify a point.
“What is this place?” asked Emma.
Before Neola could answer and before they had taken even five steps forward, the trio found themselves face to face with a young man. “I see you’re back,” he said, smirking at them in an irritating manner. Emma thought he had the air of someone who knew he was better than everyone else. She thought he was arrogant.
I still don’t see it.
“And I was having such a good day,” Neola replied. She rolled her eyes exasperatedly. “Kiddos, this is Jebel.”
Emma sucked in her breath. It wasn’t difficult to see why Celicia had teased Neola about him. As she glanced at Neola, she could tell that she was drinking in his presence. Jebel had ochre skin and large, intelligent brown eyes. His hair was as dark as black can be and he was lean and handsome and—
I could go on but for the sake of history, let’s keep moving forward with the story.
“What are they doing here?” Jebel asked, gesticulating to Charlie and Emma. “You aren’t supposed to bring visitors to the Base.” Emma’s momentary admiral was rudely interrupted and she felt her cranky mood returning.
“Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do!” Neola snapped.
Emma smiled to herself. She hadn’t been expecting such an outburst. For one, it felt good to have someone on her side but she was understanding more of Neola’s feelings.
“Oh, get off your high horse,” Jebel said.
Emma grinned knowingly. She knew right from the start where their relationship was going.
“Not for you, I won’t.”
“Wow, you’re as stubborn as an ass. I still don’t understand what Murlyn was thinking when he chose you to be a Defender.”
“Defender?” asked Charlie, curiously.
“Shut thy mouth, Jebel.”
“You’re hopeless,” was Jebel’s reply.
Neola ignored him this time and swept past him angrily. She mumbled curses under her breath and her face had turned a deeper shade of purple. Her mood was contagious and Emma once again felt a rush of heat and annoyance.
“Neola!” she said crankily. “If you don’t take me to a bathroom right now, I swear I will relieve myself right here, right now.”
Despite her annoyance, Neola let out a soft laugh. “We can’t let that happen, now can we? Let’s go, then.”
“Wait, what about me?” asked Charlie. He liked the look of Jebel and was secretly hoping that Neola would tell him to hang out with him.
“What about you?” said Neola instead.
Charlie felt his face redden and he was suddenly shy. “Where do I go?”
“Stick to me.”
“I can’t go into the girls’ bathroom!” Charlie turned back to see that Jebel was looking in their direction. He couldn’t understand their relationship. They both seemed to hate each other yet Celicia had said something about how Neola liked him.
Neola, seeing Jebel, turned her back on him and said, “Follow me, kiddos.”