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Coffee and Creativity on Mum's Third Shift


My name is Annie. I am an artist and a writer and I am also a mum to 3 young children. Creativity is a challenge to fit into my hectic life, but I try to do it every day.

My Work

I write short stories, science fiction and fantasy. Links to my writing samples, downloadable PDFs and list of e-books on Smashwords are above.

I also paint in oils and acrylics. Some of my art is based on Chinese and Japanese culture. Feel free to look through my portfolio for a sample of my work. If you have any questions, please contact me.

 To see my Art gallery: here

To see updates on my Tumblr blog, look below. The actual link is here

Annie's E-books on Smashwords 



An Eighth Shot of Espresso

Coffee and Creativity on Mom's Second Shift 

Why Drink Eight Shots of Espresso?

aka Have you Ever Tried to be Awake (and Creative) During a Second Shift?

Someone asked me why I named my creative blog “An Eighth Shot of Espresso”. Have I actually drunk 8 shots before? 

If I had, I’d still be bouncing off the ceiling. My record (I think) is three, and I was teaching middle school at the time. Anyone who’s a teacher (esp. of middle school) can understand.

I’m a full-time mom of three kids (two have special needs), writer, blogger, and artist. I also deal with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, fatigue and various other issues. That’s when I don’t help with my kids’ classes and try to keep up with house clutter. 

So I usually don’t end up with creative time until after the kids go to bed, which is basically my second shift. And coffee is a must. 

But why 8? Because when I get really tired and my mind is foggy, I feel like it’ll take that much to jumpstart my brain again?

Well, yeah. But it also sounds catchy. “An Eighth Shot of Espresso.” I’m known as MamaJava and SifaSeven on tumblr. So hello and welcome to my corner of caffeinated madness!

Posted 46 weeks ago

Yes, I’m back...

It’s been a while, but I’m back here at Eighth Shot of Espresso!

It’s been a really busy year. Struggling with health problems, mostly with my rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. I took a hiatus from art and writing for several months, switched medications (twice!), and generally tried to keep my sanity through it all. The plot fairy decided to take several trips to Barbados without me (the twerp!). It wasn’t until earlier this year that I eased myself back into the creative side of things.

A couple of housecleaning issues:

Some of my more recent artwork is here at Sifa’s Sketchbook ( Most of it is digital art, while 8thShot is my traditional watercolor, oils, etc. I’ll probably post new stuff in both places from now on.

I tried doing Nanowrimo for the 5th time this year, but I don’t think I’ll make 50,000 words this time out. On the good side, I wrote a good chunk of The Eye of the Falcon, a fantasy novel set in an alternate Ancient Egypt. I’ll post some snippets here on this blog.

The 8th Shot of Espresso Zazzle store lives! New stuff in time for holiday shopping, so check it out!

Facebook page here: 8th Shot of Espresso Facebook Page.

Posted 86 weeks ago

I wrote this earlier on my other blog...

Okay, guys, weird coincidental sign from Up High?

It’s been a while since I even touched my jewelry-making stuff, but I really enjoyed the times I created necklaces and bracelets, mainly. I used gold, silver and copper wire, and glass and ceramic beads, and tiny seed beads. But as my rheumatoid arthritis got worse, I had to stop making stuff because my hands just wouldn’t work. 

African-style necklace (sorry for the low-quality picture)

Butterfly Bracelet

Green Ice Necklace

Wooden Scarab Bracelet

But I’ve decided to do it again. I’ll probably use the Stretch Magic wire instead of metallic, and just knot the loose ends because clasps are pretty much out of my coordination range right now. Let’s see what I can come up with…

Posted 146 weeks ago

Snippet: The Deadly Card Game

“Hey, glad to see ya! Thought you wouldn’t show up!” Mac shuffled the cards again, his fingers twirling them easily.

“Yeah, well, I changed my mind,” Austin said.

“I’m glad you did,” Mac replied.

His eyes met Austin’s directly across the card table, his blue eyes to Austin’s brown. Mac’s dress code was comfortable, but casual, so he wore his lucky sweats. Bren, to his left, still had his knit cap perched on his head, like an obnoxious helmet. “Admiral” Drake proudly wore his flight jacket and “USS Enterprise” cap. Thomas the Nerd wore a ridiculous smoking jacket. Adela, the lone woman, a dark overcoat.

But Austin…Austin was different. A white polo shirt, tailored slacks, all nice and neat. Definitely not the type you’d find around the poker table in a seedy apartment.

Certainly not in Mac’s apartment. As Mac gazed at him, he saw a fellow predator. A fellow rebel. A fellow risk-taker. One of his own kind.

Austin saw the gaze and smiled.

“So,” Mac said, finally acknowledging the other players, “you all know the rules. Opening bet is fifty.”

Chips flew and landed in the center of the table. Austin waited till he was the last, then he placed a single chip. It was red, not yellow.

Five hundred.

“Cocky, are we?” Adela asked him as she batted her eyelashes. She deliberately took a deep pull of her Red Bull and placed it in her open chip box.

Austin’s smile widened. “Only when necessary.” There were chuckles all around the table, except for Thomas, who only glared at him.

Mac matched the smile. “Let’s start.”

Posted 146 weeks ago

Snippet: Confronting the Past

Some things don’t change, even after 25 years. They had never bothered to take down the signs, even after the tracks rusted in their fittings and the cars fell silent. The guardrail still stood tall, like an old sentinel., between the East and the West.

Between the Past and the Future.

Between my Fate and my Destiny.

The ramshackle huts of the Past lay directly past the tracks. My Fate had been linked to those huts. My mother, and her mother before her, had eked out a living by selling their souls for money and that was supposed to be my Fate.

Then I had crossed these tracks and caught hold of my Destiny. Now to face my Future, I must confront my Past.

“Well, better now than never,” I say and I walk over the rotting woods, past the watchful sentinel and into another world.

Posted 147 weeks ago

Link from SifaSeven...

Finally an ask-meme for writers! (source: maxkirin)

I’ll answer any question from this list :-) Always love to talk about the writing/creative process!

Posted 149 weeks ago

Link from MamaJava's Cafe

Source: explore-blog

“People always look for excuses. My favorite one is, "Well,that’s easy for you because you have a really popular blog.” As if my popular blog was something I won in the lottery…“

Showing up in your creative work. You just gotta be there and do it!

Posted 149 weeks ago

Creative housework (aka 'Operation Take Back the House' is a go)

Wait…housework isn’t creative. It’s just cleaning up a mess! Creativity is a joyful mess, not a depressing one!

Yeah, I can definitely see that, but bear with me on this one…

It’s really difficult if you’re the only one in the house who tries to keep everything neat. This summer was particularly challenging, with 2 autistic kids and a husband with Aspberger’s. As a result: shredded paper all over the place, clothes pulled from drawers, kitchen messes (Hubs loves to cook, but hates to clean, so…) stuffed animals frozen in Younger Daughter’s Tea times, and Legos all over the place.

Yeah, drudgery ahoy. But then again, it’s a creative opportunity. Also known as ‘I can FINALLY make that painting corner I’ve always wanted!’ or 'Hey, the kids’ drawings can go HERE…and maybe I can get a whiteboard so they won’t write all over the walls!’ and 'if Hubs has his tools close by, he has no excuse to rant and rave when he can’t find them!’

It’s a sanity-saver, plus it gives me the opportunity to arrange my living space to better accommodate us (not to mention, being easier to clean). With all 3 kids in school now (and I have the good fortune to work from home with a flexible schedule), I can actually make this a reality.

Of course, I have to be careful not to try to do EVERYTHING at once, but a bit each day. Sometimes clutter will multiply and Older Daughter might decide to dump the milk on the kitchen floor again. Stuff happens. But slowly and surely, I’ll get it done.

And maybe if I write down about the process, I’ll be motivated to see this through.

Posted 149 weeks ago

A Blast from the Past: The Silk Dragon (Nanowrimo 2006) Part IX

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  Part VI  Part VII  Part VIII

They’ve finally decided to join the party! Elisando exulted. The Fire Rangers threw bursts of concentrated fire, the Water Rangers pelted the enemy with frozen chunks of ice, the Earth Rangers drove pieces of the ruined monolith into the Dragons of the Void, and the Air Rangers called up the winds once more. The clean ranks of the Void degenerated into chaos as invisible hands upturned riders out of their seats, and dragged Dragons away from the arena. After the Spirit Dragons finished their initial attacks, they materialized and used their powerful tails and talons to shred the enemy into pieces.

A glow distracted Sisi from the battle above her. The base of the monolith was a perfect equilateral triangle, all of its sides fitted into each other, and this Triangle was filled with warm light. The scent of wildflowers tickled Sisi’s nose, and brought a sense of homesickness.

She patted Elisando and they dove towards the Portal within the monolith’s base. They both closed their eyes as golden light surrounded them both, and the sounds of conflict melted away into nothing.

The world disappeared.

Sisi had no idea how long they were suspended in the light. She didn’t want it to end, for a calm peace filled her soul as she drifted down, down, down. Elizando was silent, but Sisi felt her Dragon’s complete amazement. No one could harm her here, no one could hurt her.

And in the light, she saw images: Lupita presiding over an Azteca Festival, Link reading a book with his young son Tad, and Gan Zhou Bei riding at the front of a group of hunters. She saw one of the mighty “paddleboats” that Samuel had described for her; it churned the water around it as it steamed up the mighty Mississippi, wider and longer than the River where they had retrieved the First Key. She saw DW’s zoo of animals as they roamed its grounds as free as they were in nature. She saw Nurse Clara administering to wounded soldiers in a terrible Civil War. And finally, she saw herself, with a pack on her back and some kind of animal, exploring the world.

And they still drifted down, and the light became white clouds, and the white clouds became blue sky, and finally an expanse of green and gray materialized below them. The warm breezes guided them over the plains to the shadow of mountains, and she spotted a bright silver point of light at the top of the one of the mountains. As she and Elisando drifted close to their destination, a red and gold dot sat on the edge of a rocky shelf, and Sisi felt her eyes fill with tears.

Drianeh looked up and smiled, her sharp teeth gleaming in the light. She reached out to them as Elisando touched down lightly at the edge of the shelf. Sisi slid off the Spirit Dragon’s back and ran to Drianeh. The Fire Dragon’s arms went around her, and to Sisi’s shock and delight, the arms were solid and real, and she started to cry.

“You succeeded in making it this far, Sisi. Now you must complete your mission here,” Drianeh whispered. “Elisando and I will be here with you, no matter what happens.”

“Come, Sisi, all of Eternity awaits,” Elisando chimed in. 

Sisi nodded and let go of Drianeh, and with the Fire and Spirit Dragons on each side of her, she climbed up a dirt path up to the Throne of Thinking, a chair hewn from white rock, with a view of the valley below—

As she looked out, her heart started to beat faster, for the mists below her cleared, and a familiar sight greeted her. She had been here, a long time ago, with a map in her hand and dreams of seeing what lay beyond the valleys of the Sian Mountains. She reached for the box on her belt, and brought out the Singing Map. It unrolled at her touch and started singing,

“I’m the Map, and I will
tell ya what you need to know,
The final challenge you will go,
And we will love you still.”

“Thank you, Map,” Sisi whispered. She paused at the foot of the Throne of Thinking and had to shade her eyes from its glorious magnificence. It resembled her old vantage point high above Churros, but it was transformed into something else. The seat cushion was of silky yak-skin, upholstered in the softest yak hair and stuffed with something that smelled fresh and wonderful. The hard, cold granite was now warm, yellow-white marble, and there were recesses within each chair arm and at the top of the high back. Sisi reached a hand and traced the shallow indentations; as she had figured, the shapes of the holes matched the Keys she wore around her neck.
And suddenly, the Knowledge of What To Do settled into her brain like a summer wind. She brought out the Earth Key, the one that came from deep under the soil, and the one that Link had sacrificed his existence for. It had solidified to a warm bronze and slipped into its recess without a problem. 

“I call on the Power of Earth, the Power of the West, the Power of the Mountain Lion, be welcome here.” And a large ghostly cat purred and settled on the left of the Throne, at the west. 

Then Sisi drew out the Water Key, a sparkling blue sapphire like the River, and the one that Lupita had sacrificed for. She gently set it in the top of the chair, above her head. “I call on the Power of Water, the Power of the North, the Power of the Hummingbird and Wolf, be welcome here.” A glowing ruby-breasted bird alighted on the edge of the head of the chair, and a shadowy wolf took up sentry behind the throne.

Then Sisi drew out the Air Key, the one from the Crystal Monolith, and the one that Freya sacrificed her existence for. “I call on the Power of Air, the Power of the East, the Power of the Hawk and Eagle, be welcome here.” A pair of silver birds, a hawk and an eagle, alighted on the other chair arm, as Sisi placed the key within the chair arm opposite the Earth, in the East.

She blew out a breath as she straightened up to her feet. Air, Water, Earth. Where was Fire? There was no Fire Key at all. She thought for a moment. Fire, where am I going to find Fire? Wait a moment…She smacked a palm on her forehead. Yak brains, you are such an idiot, Sisi, the answer is right in front of your nose!

She had a Fire Dragon and a Spirit Dragon with her, the final Two Elements. Nothing was missing at all. The Universe was all here, and connected.

She spread her hands, and Drianeh took one, and Elisando took the other and they approached the Throne of Thinking, surrounded by the Guardians of the Elements and Directions, and Sisi closed her eyes and lowered herself onto the cushion.

And her senses exploded in a hail of bright stars.

She sat upon a milky river of stars, looking out at an Expanding Universe at her feet. The light of a million suns glowed brightly, and the spheres of many planets rotated in majestic silence. Hot red stars, cool blue ones, and everything in between; comets and shooting stars, black holes and pulsars. Sisi watched them unfold, live, and burn themselves out.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a familiar voice to her right.

Sisi turned to it, and stared at the beautiful woman dressed in red, with golden sparkles within the folds of her gown. Her long brown hair reached past her waist, and she stretched her long legs in front of her. Her dancing amber eyes shone with love and mischief, and Sisi found herself mirroring the bright grin.

“Drianeh?” she asked.

Drianeh chuckled and replied, “It’s been a long time since I’ve worn my Human form. I’ve forgotten how it felt like. And yes, I used to be a flesh-and-blood Human, just like you, and the other Rangers.” She glanced down at her hands and flexed her fingers. 

“I suppose you’re entitled to be a little vain, Drianeh,” said another voice. Elisando sighed and linked his—human?—arms behind his head. His hair was whiter than Samuel’s and his snowy mustache and beard long and full. His sun-browned skin covered a strong, muscular frame. Sisi blinked as she stared at her Spirit Dragon.

“You come from Lupita’s people?” she sputtered.

“Several generations removed, I’m afraid, but her Azteca people’s blood run in my veins,” Elisando said. “I don’t manifest in my True Form often either, but I still do, on occasion.”

“So Dragons are…Rangers?” Sisi stammered. The shock of seeing them just like herself still rang through her brain.

“Well, kind of.” Drianeh took a deep breath and launched into her explanation. “When a Ranger dies, he or she gets to choose where they end up. Some choose to return to their worlds, some decide to walk the Star Road, and some get the choice to end up as a Dragon. That last choice isn’t open to everyone; I guess it depends what you did as a Ranger, and whether you joined Good or Evil.”

“And since the Rangers had been on a decline into their own civil war for eons, fewer and fewer Dragons choose their Rangers, and the Spirit Dragons lay fewer eggs,” Elisando chimed in. “And more Rangers end up on the side of the Void. It’s a great imbalance.”

Sisi watched wispy figures walking the Road of Stars and felt a surge of happiness for those free souls. Then there was a short rumble, and the stars in one part of the Universe exploded in an ugly cry of destruction, and the Universe shifted to accommodate it. For the first time, she noticed many such gaps, and they spread, slowly but surely, into the fabric of the Universe. That fabric, overworked and overstressed, began to tear in places.

“Is that what the Rangers of the Void want?”

Drianeh nodded, her eyes sad. “Yes. They want to empty it until it’s as cold and dark as they are.”

“How do we fix it?” 

Drianeh touched Sisi’s arm. “You helped bring the Rangers together against the Void; they’re battling them back even as we speak. That is the beginning, but now you must make a choice.”

“Am I dead?”

“No, not yet, anyway,” Elisando replied with dry humor in his voice. “The Elemental Familiars can heal all this, but they need a focus. For so long, there has been no one worthy enough to become this Focus, until you were picked by Drianeh and me. But to become this Focus, you must make the choice.”

“Return to the world I came in, be a Dragon or Walk the Star Road?”

“That’s right.”

“What if I return to the Sian Mountains?”

Elisando cocked his head in her direction. “It may not be the same world that you left. For all you know, you could be in a different time altogether, a stranger.”

“And if I Walk the Star Road?”

“Peace, eternal peace and rest for you.”

Sisi frowned at his words. “For me?”

The Spirit Dragon-turned-temporary-human shook his head. “You will be at peace, but the Living will be deprived of your Spirit, your courage and your expertise.”

She considered the implications of that. “And…if I become a Dragon?”

Drianeh laughed and replied, “Then you get to nag another Ranger and make sure the Rangers walks the path of the straight and narrow. It can be fun, but it can be a huge responsibility.”

“I see.” Another sector of the Universe blew up in front of her eyes, and the rest of the Universe scrambled to compensate, and the fabric tore a little more. “I’m the one who must Save the Life the Universe and Everything.”

“SLUE,” Drianeh said with a grin. “I like it. Remind me to put it in my memoirs, Elisando.”

“Done,” Elisando said. “So, little Sisi, such is the challenge.”

Sisi sighed and watched as a third part of the Universe combusted in a wave of destruction. The souls on the Star Road walked on, blissfully unaware of the events happening just below them. If she concentrated hard enough, she could hear the sounds of battle, far away, and each Ranger’s death sliced her heart to ribbons. Bhuri, the Water Ranger Leader; Nonnie, Coren, and Jay-Jay. More and more fell, but even more Rangers of the Void disappeared in their wake. Neither side had the advantage, and it looked to the untrained eye that each side was becoming even in number.


The Universe was approaching the point of Balance, but the scale could tip either way, and throw it all out of balance again. The forces of Light or the forces of the Void? Which one would win?

It would all depend on Sisi’s choice.

And she must make that choice, and quickly.

“No pressure,” Drianeh said helpfully.

Yak butt, I hate tough decisions. Her soul longed for peace, but she couldn’t bear the fact that she could do nothing to help the Universe, in case of trouble. It reminded her of the mindless gatherings of her Foster-Mother’s relatives. Suddenly, as she thought back upon it, the cheer was false, the excitement feigned, and the shifty eyes watched every move. The Celebration of the Maiden, during the spring Festival, was a competition among the young girls of Akumas, with all its mandatory back-stabbing and nastiness. And after the Maiden was chosen, the losers all wore tight smiles, but held revenge in their hearts.

And after the Celebration of the Maiden, there was the Celebration of the Air Dragon of Spring, and the Festival of the Fire Dragon in the summer, and the Gathering of the Warmth in the middle of Summer, and the Water Festival near the end of summer, and the Welcoming of the Fall at the end of the season, and…more and more festivals, and minor gatherings interspersed in between in a breathless rush. 
Sisi had enjoyed all of these parties and celebrations, but now as she looked back at them, she realized that the joy was all upon the surface.

“Any excuse for a party,” Foster Mother Tatara had said with a laugh. Was it all an excuse to banish the ghosts of restlessness and boredom? Of anger and revenge? Of hollow emptiness?

And even the monotony of Churros, of Foster Father Men Pao’s people. They worked for a living, and lived for working. They channeled all their energy into their professions, whether it be yak-training or the production of chaochaou. These people were exacting and good at their work, but they scorned anything and anyone who thought otherwise. The Akumas were frivolous hedonists, they argued, and Churros would prove their existence wrong.

Before, Sisi accepted her villages’ mindsets as gospel. Now that she was far enough away to see with a critical eye, neither of them were close to the perfection they claimed. Both had their strong points and their weak points, but neither was all-knowing. And while they didn’t argue with swords and Dragons, they grudgingly acknowledged each other positions.

That concept of balance, again. 

Sisi closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself as a Dragon. She would probably be a Fire Dragon or a Spirit Dragon herself. The immovable mindset of Earth and the fickle qualities of Air would not suit her, and the mutable, changing nature of Water would drive her mad in the long run. So, Fire or Spirit. She saw herself traveling between dimensions, choosing her Rangers, leading her fellow Rangers in Saving the Universe and Everything. It was an exciting and breathtaking possibility.
But she would also be bound to one purpose, and instead of finding the new, she would be charged with protecting the old. Whatever happened to the yearning to explore, to discover new worlds, converse with new people?

You can still do that as a Dragon, a part of her argued. Each Ranger will be different, each adventure a new story. Why the hesitation? 

Would she still be Sisi? Yes.

Would she still be able to help those in trouble? Yes.

Would she still be able to do the things that were uniquely human? Drink chaochaou, play yak-ball, track objects with the help of a map? 

Um, no.

Does that really matter? Think of the power you would have as a Dragon!
Sisi sighed and shook her head. Yes, it matters.

Being Human isn’t all that wonderful…you just said yourself that Humans aren’t perfect. 

A slow smile crept across her face. “Humans aren’t supposed to be perfect.”

“Excuse me?” Elisando asked, though the same grin adorned his rugged face.

“I think I know what to choose, Elisando.”

He glanced over her head to Drianeh and said, “I told you she wouldn’t take too much time. The girl knows what she wants.”

“Wasn’t it me who said that we picked the right person for a Ranger, Elisando?” Drianeh teased gently. She sighed and carefully got to her feet, her own balance precarious on her pair of scarlet high heels. Elisando stood at Sisi’s other side, tall and proud; she could see a little bit of Lupita’s warrior blood in the way he held himself.

“So. Turn your face to the universe, Sisi and tell it what you want,” said Elisando.

She looked out to the vast expanse of stars and comets and planets, to the visible rents and tears in the fabric of the Universe, to the Road of Stars far above, and the suns that shone over an infinite number of worlds. She heard the sounds of the battle between the Light and the Void, she heard the songs her Foster Mother Tatara taught her, and she heard the sigh of the wind and the gurgle of the water, the laugh of a child, and the groan of a dying man. She was a part of the universe, but she could also step away from it and watch time crawl or speed by, if she wanted.
The Elements had given her the power of an immortal goddess.

But did she want people to worship her, did she want priestesses like Lupita or servants of justice like Link or bards and storytellers like Samuel or warriors like Gan Zhou Bei to put their will into her likeness? Did she wish to exercise her power—subtle, if anything—over an impressionable and confused Ranger trainee, newly snatched from his or her world?

She had the power to stretch out her hand and order the Void to be destroyed.
Enemies, instead of equal allies.

“No,” she whispered. Then she raised her eyes to the Universe and told it what she wanted. As soon as the last word faded into space, the breath of existence paused for a millisecond. 

Then space and time followed her instructions.

It contracted into itself at a speed immeasurable by man, then expanded outward, reorganizing itself, reconstituting itself, shifting itself. Stars were reborn, old stars died, planets formed out of the ether or crumbled into space dust. Comets redirected their paths, black holes squeezed itself flat or curved space and time where it once flowed in a straight line.

The tears and rents refolded onto themselves, heavenly matter patched the holes, and stray threads wove themselves back into the fabric of space.

Balance, Sisi thought. Equal allies instead of enemies.

She had no name, but she knew her role in the group. Every night, she stood watch by the campfire as her fellows slept, her Night Vision illuminating the darkness. Sometimes the fire wasn’t enough to keep the predators away; her job was to ensure the safety of the group.

Just a few moons ago, one of the hunters had slipped and fell into an ice crevasse. His death had been a cruel blow to the group, for the winter had been cruel, and most of the able-bodied men had succumbed to accident or snow sickness. Now the group consisted of mostly women and young children, the ones who, by tradition, depended on the menfolk for fresh food and protection. With the men dead or ill, what were they to do?

We will do what we need to do, she had told the others. The women stared at her as if a demon had stood in her place and overtaken her mouth. Slowly, they taught themselves how to bring down small game, how to coax fish out of the rivers, how to start the Gift of Fire, how to look forward, instead of wander backward. Tradition was fine, she believed, but there desperate times called for desperate measures, and tradition took a backseat to survival.

And now the group was surviving. Messengers from other groups had arrived with the warming weather and more men were planning to stay. They wanted things to revert to the way things wanted to be, but a new tradition had taken hold. Disgruntled, the arrogant males left to find more willing prey, and the ones who could accept the new ways remained to contribute their strength and their children.

She smiled in the darkness. The Gods, who had turned their backs upon them, now shone their faces in approval. With their grace, the group would survive and thrive, and be remembered for times to come…

The alchemist started as he realized how close to sleep he was. He straightened and rubbed his eyes, but the gritty residue of exhaustion clung to him. The cheery glow of the fire seemed to laugh at him, not mockingly, but in sympathy. He chuckled to himself at the very notion of fire having a personality.

The Elements have a sense of humor, he considered with a wry grin. At least the Fire is in a good mood this night, and not in a rage.

“Father, I have catalogued the newest chemicals, and measured them out according to your specifications.”

He laughed again and turned to the sound of the voice, “Our specifications, Hestia. You did most of the research, my daughter, and worked most of the theories. I believe you have surpassed even the limits of my knowledge.”

Hestia blushed and bowed her head in modesty. “Does that bother you, Father?”

“Does ‘what’ bother me?”

“That I assist you in your enquiries?”

He eyes her in mock irritation. “Hestia, if I’d objected to your assistance, I would have sent you off to the nunnery a long time ago. As it is, I don’t believe in refusing the help the Gods choose—and are willing—to give us.”

“I know, but—“

”No buts, my girl. Now, let me see your preparations.”

Hestia glided to her worktable near the fireplace, and he followed her. Tall and lithe, with red-gold hair the color of summer sunsets, he thought her mother named her well: Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth. His contemporaries had offered a king’s ransom for her hand in marriage, but he had refused them all. Such money could have easily afforded him the apparatuses, the volumes, the powders and the means to make his name in the Church’s annals, but he refused to trade his spiritual happiness for worldly wealth. Many equated his name with “fool” and “lunatic”, but he did not care. God worked in mysterious ways; the most brilliant mind just happened to be set in the body of a young woman. Did it matter the package wrapping, if the gift itself was worth more than gold?

Hestia’s table was lined with delicate powders on neatly trimmed squares of paper. A bowl of clear water sat on a brazier, next to a mortar and pestle. She picked up an piece of parchment, covered with arcane symbols and equations, all written in her steady hand. Her father stood at the head of the table and nodded at her precise preparations.

“Are you ready, Hestia?”

“Yes, Father.”

She began the chant in a pleasant contralto, giving praise to God and His wondrous works, then she carefully picked up the warmed water off the brazier. One by one, she went down the line of ingredients, adding them to her bowl with the incantations that went with each powder, and she stirred the water with a silver spoon. Finally, she added the last ingredient, and finished the song, and she stirred the concoction ten times clockwise, then ten times counterclockwise. She put down the spoon and lifted the bowl in her hands, murmuring her thanks to all Four Directions and Four Elements.

“It is done,” she said.

“Very good, Hestia,” he said. “Now, let us see whether or not it—“

Suddenly, the door exploded outward, and men dressed in monkish robes burst into the room. Glass shattered as they upended the glass instruments, and they ripped open packets of powder and flung them into the air. The alchemist tried to stop them, but they shoved him to the floor. He heard Hestia’s screaming, but fatigue paralyzed his limbs, and he could not help her.

“Put your beliefs in your mouth,” the head monk screamed, “and we’ll see if God favors your unholy ceremonies, witch!”

They pulled her from the floor when they had finished with her, and forced her to kneel in front of them. The monks intoned prayers of deliverance as one of them tipped her head back and held her mouth open. The head monk’s eyes glittered with evil ecstasy as he poured the alchemical formula into her mouth. She sputtered and tried to turn her face away from it, but the monk holding her pinched her nose and wrenched her back under the overflow.

“No,” the alchemist cried weakly. His vision wavered as blood from a cut above his eye began to gush.. Something was broken, bleeding inside, he couldn’t move, and the formula wasn’t meant to be ingested.

Forgive them, Lord, for they don’t know what they do.

Hestia’s body jerked in spasms as the monks finally allowed her to collapse on the floor. Then she was still, and the only sounds was the hissing of the formula as it ate into the stone floor.

The Head Monk passed his eyes around the ruins of the room. “Burn it,” he ordered harshly. “Let them suffer and be purified in the flames.”

“So be it,” his acolytes droned.

The alchemist heard the monks stoke the fireplace with precious tracts, books and writings, then throw these improvised flamethrowers into his equipment and furniture. Then all was yellow and orange and red, and he felt those flames lick at his feet and hair. He closed his eyes and left it all to God.

Father, Father, get up!

He opened one eye, but saw nothing but fire. Hestia? But—

Father, take my hand. Take my hand!

Somehow, he commanded his arm to move, inch by painful inch to lift upwards, and he felt something take it, something gentle but sharp at the same time…a large shadow came over him, but it was both strange and familiar at the same time. The flames parted to reveal…

God have mercy! He remembered his father’s nautical maps, and the spidery script over unknown territory Here be Dragons. His father believed in them; he himself scoffed at their very existence. Of course, in his pride, he never thought his father was right.

His daughter had been transformed into a red-golden dragon with her bewitching green eyes and her soul intact.

Then he was out of the fire and over a wide ocean. The smell of the salt brought good memories, memories of standing along the Venetian dock with his father and watching the ships coming in. Memories of bringing his day-old daughter to the same dock and praying for God’s grace, and the Water to cleanse and welcome her into the world…

He felt his body shudder, and thought My soul has been released…

but not to Heaven. Into another body.

A body that was definitely not Human.

He looked at his long, sinuous body, his diamond-tipped claws, all azure blue, the color of a calm sea. Fur tickled his nose and he sneezed, a bass rumble. Even his own voice had deepened into the roar of the waves.

Fire and Water. Opposites, but one cannot live without the other, according to the Laws of Nature. Enemies, but necessary to their existence, like Light and Dark, Man and Woman, Life and Death.

He laughed and reveled as his lungs didn’t hurt him, his head was clear for the first time in ages, and his soul was full of purpose.

Where are we going, Hestia?

To where the Dragons roam, and to where we can live in peace. Hestia winked at him, then beat her wings to pull ahead of him. Come and catch me, Father!

He grinned and flew faster, chasing her like when she was a little girl. Of course, she would always be his little girl, even as a dragon.

“Oh bloody hell!”

Captain Rachel Brannigan sighed and rolled her eyes. The enemy was out there, somewhere, and the young corporal’s exclamation could have given away their position. She put a hand on her aide’s shoulder and mouthed, “Find out who that stupid idiot is and shove him to the back of the line.”

“Yes, Captain,” the aide mouthed back, and slunk off to the rest of the line.

Brannigan sighed and leaned against the rock barricade. She paused and took off her helmet, letting the wind blow through her sweaty hair. When was the last time she’d been able to do that?

In Alpha Centauri’s Dolittle Beach, years ago, before the universe exploded into war. Earth’s Four Factions turned against each other and brother fought brother, and mother fought daughter in an endless line of skirmishes and routs. Brannigan’s mouth twitched as her fingers found the patch on her shoulder, a ring of mountains, right above her country patch, the Union Jack. The United Kingdom had threw their lot in with the Earth Alliance, against the Fire of Crusade, the Winds of Terror, and the Sea of Action. Many of her fellow comrades had joined the other Factions. Her own Yank husband led a battalion of the Fire of Crusade, for the spread of goodness and righteousness, he claimed.

Oh, bloody brilliant. I wonder whose goodness and righteousness. Really, she couldn’t blame him, for he had been brought up in good ol’ Southern Yank theocracy—what a contradiction—and he honestly believed his way was right. She loved his dedication, but not the cause to what he dedicated his life.

Freakin’ stupid mess of the world. Interesting that they’d name themselves after the Crusades…as if all they have to do is wave their Good Book and sing, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”…she cut off that old argument before it started. His beliefs had been sincere, he meant well, but she was a firm believer in secular thought, and that had been the death of their relationship.

A piercing whine broke the silence of the night. One of the lookouts screamed, “Incoming! Incoming!”

With trained patience, the anti-aircraft and anti-tank measures kicked in, and the dark heavens were sliced with streaks of light. Ammunition fire poured over and through her defenses, and her people screamed and cursed as they were mowed down like sheaves of wheat. The grim, single-minded brutality, the speed of the attack, shocked the Earth forces, but they shook off their paralysis. Return fire came out with a vengeance, and Brannigan’s people advanced forward with steady determination.

She slammed her helmet back onto her head, and ordered, “Second Group, forward!”
Her soldiers marched in precise formation, the piper sounding the battle cry. The smoke parted and the face of the enemy glared in the lights of destruction. The Winds of Terror screamed at the top of their lungs as they rushed into the fray, man to a man, with weapons swinging.

This is it, no turning back, she thought. Her nerves were strangely calm, although she was fully aware that there was no way she or her group could survive this engagement. This was what she had spent her entire life training for…for the land and the planet she loved.

She took a deep breath and surged forward, with all the power of the Earth Alliance behind her. Her automatic laser cannon belched death on all sides of her; the recharge kicked in again and again, the heat of the cannon seeped in through her heavy-duty gloves and burned her fingers.

Then she saw her counterpart on the field, another leader. The Wind Warrior’s helmet had been knocked off, and long black hair fanned around her like a second shield. An elegant tattoo encircled her right eye and snaked along her jaw. Her black eyes shimmered like onyxes set in wide settings. The Wind Warrior’s rifle chattered, and Brannigan saw her loyal aide collapse under the onslaught.

Rage and grief gave Brannigan strength, and she hefted the cannon, balanced it on her shoulder, and sighted the Wind Captain. Like her namesake Element, she shifted and danced as she parceled out tickets to Hell, and never stood still. Brannigan kept her ground, centered and stable, and ignored the charges that exploded all around her.

Finally, the Wind Captain seemed to notice her. The enemy’s eyes widened, then she gave Brannigan a short salute with her rifle. And in that moment, they understood each other. They appreciated each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and knew that in another time, on another world, they might be sitting in the lobby of the most expensive hotel in London and sharing a pot of tea, fairy cakes and strawberry scones. And they both regretted the circumstances that led to this moment.

Brannigan gave her a shrug of apology, and the Wind Captain acknowledged it with a sad nod. Then the moment passed, and Brannigan’s finger tightened on the trigger, as the Wind Captain fired her own rifle.

The recoil threw Brannigan into the mud, and she lost her weapon in the discharge. She couldn’t see, for there was nothing but darkness, and her face felt warm and sticky. The churned up earth welcomed her and she felt herself sink into its welcome warmness…

Warmness? The field of battle is hard and cold…

She couldn’t feel her body anymore, but she felt the Earth all around her, combining, reshifting, rebalancing itself. Then she understood what was happening.

Get rid of this bloody stupid war…make things back the way they should be!

And to Brannigan’s surprise, the Universe actually listened.

Make things back the way they should be!
Equal allies.



Sisi staggered as images streamed into her brain. She was the cavewoman sentry, and Hestia the first Fire Dragon, and she was Captain Rachel Brannigan of the Earth Alliance. An eternity’s worth of memories, edited, remastered and rewritten. The cavewoman lived to see another beautiful morning, Hestia founded the Aerie and the clutch of Fire Dragons, and Rachel Brannigan met her friend in the lobby of the London Ritz for tea and scones.

And the Elements rearranged themselves; not a square with four opposing sides but a circle, never ending and never dying. The circle became a spiral, that formed the core of the new Universe. And Sisi reached out and shaped that spiral into her hands, filled it with her essence and gave it her instructions. With the foundations laid, the universe obeyed its new commands. New worlds were born, new dimensions taking on shape and form. And she wove Spirit Stories into them, stories of harmony and peace and love, and protection. She knew that there would be conflict and arguments, that couldn’t be helped, but there would be options for peaceful settlement, instead of war.

And she welcomed the souls of the departed Rangers, asking them what they wanted. Some chose to return, some chose to rest, and some chose to guide and teach. Sisi nodded and allowed them to finish their journeys, or continue on their ways as they saw fit. Jay Jay and Coren chose to return to their home dimensions and begin life anew, while Nonnie chose Dragon form.

And she saw the fates of her other friends. How Samuel departed to his rest in concert with the comet in the sky, and how his stories brought laughter and joy to many generations. How Gan Zhou Bei led his own forces and became a gifted leader in his own right, and organized his people into a coherent country. She saw Gan Zhou Bei’s legacy spread in tales and songs, and how he became a myth larger than myth.
Finally, the song was ended, and life flourished once more.

Time slowed to its natural rhythm, and the new universe ran according to its clock.

“Wake up, Sisi. My, you’ve single-handedly founded a universe. Not many people can lay claim to that, you know.”

“Well, there is no instruction manual for rewriting the forces of space and time. I would say that she did as well as she could, given the circumstances.”

“‘As well as she could?’ Crikey, man, give her a bit more credit’n that! She bloody well rewrote the entire Book herself. I’d hate to have the cosmic hangover she’s gonna have in a bit. Whew!”

“Do you have that herbal remedy for her, Steve?”

Is that his name? Steve? It was the first time Sisi had heard his given name. The unusual laughing accent grew even merrier as he replied, “‘Course I do, Elisando. Never leave home without it. Guaranteed to cure snakebite, crocodile tears, and the occasional draconian hiccup.”

Elisando sounded relieved. “Good. Well, this is rather awkward, but now that the Universe is balanced, what will transpire in this new time?”

“What do you mean?” asked the first voice, which Sisi recognized as Drianeh’s.

“He means ‘What the hell comes next?’” DW supplied helpfully.

Drianeh sighed. “Well, the Elemental Council is holding a meeting, but I suppose since they’ve been waiting for an eternity, they can wait just a little longer.”

“No skin off their noses, eh?”

Drianeh laughed, “For those who have noses, yes.”

Feeling coursed through Sisi’s limbs, nice Earth Healing energy. She opened her eyes to find herself lying in a soft bed, and surrounded by cushions and blankets. High above her, Elisando, Drianeh, and DW smiled down at her. She turned her head to see Nurse Clara concentrating on her, and Clara opened her eyes.

“Welcome back, Sisi.” Clara said. “How do you feel?”

“Not…bad,” she replied. And the Truth was, she felt as if she had been in a deep, relaxing sleep. “Where am I?”

DW grinned and said, “Well, at least it isn’t ‘Who am I?’ You’re in the new Elemental Council building in the Grove. Seems like the head honchos put in for new digs, and got their wish.” He pressed a mug of hot liquid into her hands. “First things, first. Drink that. It’ll make you feel even more wonderful when the cosmic hangover hits.”

She sniffed it and grinned. Chaochaou, thick and sweet. As she finished off the herbal remedy, she heard the rest of the story from her fellow Rangers.

“Suddenly, in the middle of all the hullaballoo, the whole group of Spirit Dragon eggs started hatchin, every single one of ‘em, and they all took off through some powerful Portal. I managed to get onto Suuie and follow ‘em, and we ended up in one helluva pub fight. Seems like the Rangers of the Void wanted to throw everythin’ but the kitchen sink, there didn’t seem to be any progress in the battle, then everythin’ went kablooey!”

Drianeh smiled at DW’s enthusiastic retelling of the story and took up the thread. “When you told the Universe you wanted to make everything equal allies, it listened. Instead of thinking about yourself, what you would want, you thought about others. That broke the Void’s power, Sisi. You used the power of compassion and love. The Power of Spirit.”

Sisi hid her blush within the steam rising from the chaochaou. “I thought about being a Dragon, but something told me to look elsewhere, and the words just came out.”

“You listened to your heart,” Elisando said quietly.

“And when the word came out, everything got all colorful and jumbled, like a fireworks party on Australia Day. I felt like I was in some kinda crazy blender. Next thing I know, I’m in the Grove, sitting next to some Familiars, and I’m lecturing on not leavin’ mud tracks in the wading pool! Leavin’ mud tracks in the wadin’ pool, of all places!” DW grinned and winked. “As if it was the most important thing in the world at the time. Grabbed me a young Dragon and pulled her aside—Air Dragon, methinks—and I asked her what’s goin’ on. And she tells me that the last bunch of little critters are makin’ their homes on the ridge, and that I shouldn’t worry my head over it! I thought I was going crazier than a dingo on speed, I tell ya.”

“That brings up an interesting point,” Clara said. “Sisi corrected the imbalance in the Universe, but when she did it, everything changed. Why do we remember what actually happened and no one else does?”

Drianeh and Elisando glanced at each other. “Only a handful of people remember, and those people are those who survived the Void’s assault and the birth of the new Universe. Most of the previous Rangers were returned to their places in history, like Samuel and Gan Zhou Bei. Others just—never existed to begin with.” Elisando bowed his head. “The memory of their loss is a painful one, but a necessary one.”

Sisi stared at the bottom of her cup. “What happens now?”

Drianeh put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “We go to the Elemental Council and plan our future.”

The Council Building fit DW’s description of “fancier digs”. It was a semicircle on a plateau, surrounded by sky, hot springs, and a cool waterfall that emptied into the River below. Sisi gaped at the sight of Air Rangers and Earth Rangers, Fire Rangers and Water Rangers socializing and talking with each other. Dragons of different Elements played tag in the large courtyard outside. The amazing thing was that they all acted as if it was normal, and that such fraternization was common. Sisi knew that none of them remembered a time when the Elemental Rangers were fighting amongst themselves; as far as they were concerned, the peaceful time of cooperation had always existed.

The Council Chamber was filled to capacity, but a row of seats at the front of the room were conspicuously empty. A woman dressed in the bright whites of a Spirit Ranger rang a series of beautiful-sounded chimes, and the audience took their seats. Sisi and her friends took one of the front rows.

“Fellow Elemental Rangers, we hold this special meeting to remember those who served without fear, without anger and without shame. Many generations of Rangers, and many generations of Dragons and Familiars have dedicated their lives to the protection of our Universe. Now we nominate the new members of our Head Council. Three representatives from each Element and three Dragons and Three Familiars. Let me call and introduce them to you.”

“Tania, Bryseol and Namibu, from the Earth Rangers. Suirya, El-Waheed, and Tristan from the Water Rangers. Eris, Drake, and Saska from the Air Rangers. Depra, June, and Tabor, from the Fire Rangers. The Four Main Elements, three from each, twelve in all.”

As the new officers heard their names, they assumed their seats in front of the assembly.

“Gabriel, Azriel, and Raphael, from the Spirit Rangers. Deuro, Malagascur and Promedes from the Void. Three from the Elements Above and Below. Six in all.”

“From the Void?” Sisi repeated in awe.

“Remember, Sisi, the Spirit needs the Void as much as the Void needs the Spirit,” Elisando reminded her in a whisper.

The Head Spirit Ranger raised her voice. “From the Familiars: Dhurmina, Kalivar, and Totin. From the Dragons: Elisando, Drianeh and Suuie, from the Guardians, six in all.”

“That’s us,” Drianeh said, and she and Elisando stood up. Suddenly, Sisi’s vision wavered, and instead of their Human forms, the two Dragons took their positions behind the row of seats. Suuie, the Dragon who helped DW, joined them. The trio looked so majestic, protecting the Council, that tears of pure joy streamed down Sisi’s face.

“Twelve Rangers, Six from Above and Below, and Six from the Guardians, for a total of twenty-four. It is balanced, it is pure. May you all serve for the Greater Good and the Protection of those who claim the title of Ranger, Dragon, Familiar and member of the Universal Family.”

“So be it,” they all intoned and the Head Spirit Ranger rang the chimes again. A roar of applause thundered through the Council Hall. It brought the audience to their feet, and their cheers rose into the high ceiling and bounced off the rafters.

The Head Spirit Ranger raised her hand and the cheers faded to silence. “There is one last issue to address. We have a Ranger to thank for her selfless service to the Universe. Ranger Sisi, of Fire and Spirit, will you please rise and approach?”

Sisi swallowed hard and her legs shook as she walked towards the new council. The Head Ranger seemed to take pity on her and met her halfway. Her auburn hair sparkled in the sunlit hall, and her gentle blue eyes were the blue of peace. Sisi was taken by that gaze.

“Sisi, we all owe you a great debt, for you have thought of others instead of yourself for so long. You have the power to return here to the Grove whenever you wish, and join us for as long as you wish. But deep within your heart, you have a desire that you refuse to acknowledge for fear of seeming selfish. There is no shame in wanting your heart’s desire, especially when it is to the benefit of all. As I said, you have the ability to cross dimensions, to gain new knowledge and to explore new worlds. Technically speaking, this is your universe, per se.”

Her last remark brought chuckles from the other Rangers, but they were sharing the joke, not feeling malice. Sisi wiped her tears with the back of her hand and managed to smile back.

“Tell ‘em what you want, Sisi love,” DW hollered from the crowd. “C’mon, don’t be shy.” His heartfelt remark brought another round of applause.

“Steve is right. Tell us what you would like, and it will be granted.”

Sisi took a deep breath, and with a loving glance at Elisando and Drianeh, and a wink at DW, she told the Spirit Ranger what she wanted.

And the Universe listened again.

She stood at her favorite vantage point in the Sian Mountains, overlooking Churros, but instead of the drab, colorless village she remembered, it bloomed with music and laughter, as the Festival of the Great Dragon was about to start. As she watched, bonfires bloomed across the mountain ridge. In the sky, the wispy forms of Spirit Dragons passed over Churros, undetected by the villagers, but Sisi saw them and smiled.

Foster Mother Tatara, Foster Father Meng Pao. I’m finally coming home to you.
She patted her yak companion, and swung up on his back. Then they went down the rocky path down towards her new village, and her new destiny.

Posted 149 weeks ago

A Blast from the Past: The Silk Dragon (Nanowrimo 2006) Part VIII

Part I  Part II  Part III Part IV  Part V  Part VI  Part VII

Sisi consulted the map to find the Portal Point for the Clouds of Sorrow, but Freya seemed to sense it before she said anything. Freya pulled Aseoguard alongside and said, “Wait here. We are close, I can feel it.”

Sisi nodded and signaled for the others to halt. Freya rode ahead a ways, then she closed her eyes. Aseogard seemed to fade, as if she was made of Spirit and not of Air, but her outline was brilliant against the sky. Freya raised her hands, palms upwards and crooned something in her native language. Golden lightning sprang from her fingertips and snaked across the heavens, searching for the Portal. A swirl of wind encompassed her and covered her until all Sisi could see was her shadow within the wind.

Samuel scowled. “Gan Zhou Bei, this reminds me too much of when she called the Gales into the Cave. The first time drained her; why is she doing it again?”

“Air tends to be fickle,” Gan Zhou Bei replied with a shrug. “Perhaps Freya isn’t as strong a mistress as she claims to be.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Samuel objected. “There’s something dark within her, something that she keeps in check most of the time, but it gets away from her when she’s fighting.”

“Ah, warrior’s mind, probably?”


“As a storyteller, you wouldn’t understand.”

“I wouldn’t, unless you enlighten me. Otherwise, how would I know?”

Gan Zhou Bei thought about it for a moment, as if Fu Ling had also said something about it. He sighed and nodded. “The Lady Dragon reminds me that just because I know, it doesn’t mean that everyone else would know. So. When a warrior is in the heat of battle, you focus on nothing else, for if you do so, it could mean your death. Distraction is deadly. One stray thought, one wrong move, and—“he slid his index finger across his throat—“you are gone. Freya concentrates on defending her allies to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps she had simply closed her mind of extra thoughts, and so provided more energy to her winds.”

“Maybe.” Samuel still seemed thoughtful as he looked at Freya’s shadow within the cocoon of wind. “I would think that such single-mindedness would be in itself deadly.”

“In other situations, perhaps. Sisi’s people have a saying, ‘Nose to the stone, job gets done’, or somesuch.”

“Nose to the grindstone, you mean.”


“A huge wheel meant to grind wheat into cornmeal.”

“Ah. We had no such thing in my village.”

“No?” Samuel asked. Gan Zhou Bei had never opened up to his inquiries before, so he kept one eye on Freya and the other on his other warrior friend. “Then what did you eat?”

“Meat, herbs, long vegetables from the ground. We traded for bread, already in packs. Until I came here, I never knew bread could be so plentiful.”

Samuel frowned as another mystery occurred to him. “Wait a moment. You weren’t chosen by a Dragon or a Familar, were you? Then how did you end up here?”

Gan Zhou Bei shrugged. “The same as Sadie and the others who are not Rangers. One moment we were in Dreams, the next, here. Quite disconcerting, but like you, we have learned to adjust. Imagine, a hunter in the Sian, in pursuit of the hynnga, the largest yak-like animal ever, waking up to the hot sun, and broiling within his furs!” He laughed aloud at the memory, and Fu Ling snorted in response. “Luckily, Sadie was in search of grain for her potions and drinks, and stumbled over a…what did she call me? Ah yes, a caveman out of the Stone Age, whatever that was.”

Samuel grinned, despite himself. This story beat anything he could have made up on his own. “Long, long ago, there was a race of men who were hunter-gatherers, and lived when the ice covered the Earth. They used stone-tipped spears to bring down large animals and made caves their homes. Thus, the caveman out of the Stone Age.”
“Ah, Samuel, thank you. I was wondering about that. Sadie never really explained herself, and she told me that if she’d said that to anyone else, it might be taken as an insult, so I wasn’t sure what her words meant.”

Samuel smiled to take the sting out of his words. “Well, when a woman says that to a man, it could mean that the man is nothing but a mindless barbarian. But there are definite times when our noble ancestors had the right ideas about survival.”

Gan Zhou Bei’s face had become just as thoughtful, then he said, “I suppose that is meant to be a compliment. Thank you again, Samuel. You know, you and I are perhaps more similar than I had first thought.”

“Perhaps, and I will take that as an honorable compliment, my friend,” Samuel said, with a courtly bow, and Twain bobbed his head and Fu Ling roared in complete agreement.

There was a flash of light, and the winds surrounding Freya parted into two fast streams of air. They met directly in front of her, expanded into a square, then lengthened into a rectangle. It glowed white-golden, then darkened into a black, glassy pool. Freya scowled, and poured more energy into it to brighten it again. Finally, it stayed the color of pure gold.

“I have it!” she cried in triumph. “Quickly, while I can hold it! And close your eyes before you enter!”

Gan Zhou Bei reined Fu Ling in and dove towards the Portal. He disappeared within it, then Samuel and Twain. Sisi and Elisando started towards it, but Sisi saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Within the clouds around them, dark shapes began to form, and suddenly, a bolt of lightning lashed out towards Freya. Sisi cried three sharp words, and a wall of fire sprang up between the bolt and Freya and absorbed the attack.

Dark-winged vultures tried to get past the barrier, but the flames reached out for them, driving them back. Sisi clenched her fists and punched them outward, and the flames thrusted towards the dark clouds and sizzled them out of existence. The vultures screamed and melted away.

Sisi wasted no time in passing through the Portal, and Freya slipped in just as the Portal snapped shut behind them. Color swirled beneath Sisi’s closed eyelids, which formed into a familiar scarlet form.

Drianeh! Sisi called.

Sisi, beware! The Fire Dragon’s golden eyes were wide with panic. There has been one in your midst who is an agent of the Void! Beware!

The warning seared through her soul. Who is it, Drianeh? Who? Is it Freya?

The Mistress of the Winds knows who it is! She does!

Sisi shook her head; she couldn’t believe Freya capable of treachery, not after all they had all been through. Then the full meaning behind Drianeh’s words hit her: Freya knew who it was, but it didn’t necessarily follow that Freya herself was the agent.

But that meant either Gan Zhou Bei or Samuel…no, she believed that even less.
Herself? No, wouldn’t she have known a long time before this?

Then the Portal spit her out into a bank of dark clouds, so dark that Sisi wondered if she was still in the World between Worlds. These clouds were illuminated by yellow light from below, and it gave the clouds an eerie appearance. Cold wind blew threw Sisi’s long black hair, and her teeth chattered in its wake. She reached into her pack and put on her yak-wool coat, but that failed to make her warm, so she also spread warmth over herself and Elisando.

“Where are we?” she asked aloud. “Where are the others?”

There are three levels of clouds, Elisando said, It appears we are at the lowest level. As for the others…I can’t reach them. I don’t hear them at all, and that worries me.

“So where do we go? How are we going to find the Key now?”

Elisando swung his head back and forth, his large nostrils flared, his eyes so wide that it was all pupil. There, he said, pointing his talon ahead. There.

“Then ‘there’ we go, Elisando.”

They flew slowly through the clouds, rising and falling with the wind currents. Sisi raised her hand and projected light in front of them, for it was so dark that they barely saw a few feet in front of them. The only sounds were the howl of the wind and the echoes reverberating back and forth. Sisi plunged into a cloudbank, then pulled up into a world of white snow and ice.

Norga, Elisando whispered in awe. Freya never talks much about her home, but she always made it sound so mysterious.

“This makes the Spooky Forest look like a Harvest Festival,” Sisi murmured in a hushed tone. Dead branches pierced the sky like jagged fingers, and the ground was covered with hip-deep snowdrifts. In the distance, she saw a line of bright orange among the hills…

Fire! There’s a fire in the distance! Sisi, this is no ordinary fire! It smells like magic!

Sisi spurred him on, and they covered the distance between themselves and the fire in a few minutes. She nodded in agreement as the orange flames burned with poisonous green centers, and they marched in line with the precision of a conquering army. Even more disturbing: the fire gave no heat, but radiated an icy core that was colder than the blackest space. Sisi looked across the mountain ridge in horror as she realized that the black dots that streamed down the slopes were not pieces of debris, but people who were fleeing the onslaught.

“Yak crap!” Sisi cursed and headed towards the villages on the ridge line. Elegant wooden structures burned with the cold fire and spread with amazing speed. Intricate stained-glass windows melted into puddles and carved bone statues blackened and cracked in the streets. The flames sparred with warriors who defended their homes; all of the warriors wore silver breastplates and horned helmets, and carried axes, spears and swords. Unfortunately, no earthly weapon could harm demons conjured from magic; the fire teased their opponents before overwhelming them with sheer numbers, and Sisi heard the screams and howls of agony before they mercifully ceased.
Sisi, they’re losing! Quickly, can you See the Source of these demonic pests?

She forced herself to stare into the flames’ ugly green centers and “heard” a constant buzz within them. It was the same buzz that she had heard each time the Rangers of the Void appeared near to her. The Rangers of the Void are in control. Where are they, Elisando?

One moment. Elisando flapped his wings as he concentrated. There, high on the ridge. Gods, I can feel their power. How did they gather so much energy?

A shrill scream broke their concentration, and a lone woman warrior rushed down the icy street below them, sword raised high and blonde braids swinging to and fro. Sisi recognized a younger version of the Freya she knew, and she realized she was seeing old history.

No, not old history, Sisi. Watch a moment.

Freya swung at the flames, which jumped back at her onslaught. She cleared a circle all around her, and the flames hung back as if they couldn’t understand why she was able to hurt them. Other flames poured in like a river of lava, forming another circle, then another, until Freya was in the center of five concentric circles, each one expanding bigger than the previous one. Freya glanced about her with a look of startled confusion on her face, but she maintained her high defensive guard. Her fellow warriors tried to reach her, but couldn’t get past the barriers.

Why isolate Freya? The fire danced around the Norga warrior to a slow drumbeat, but Freya stayed completely motionless. Sisi suddenly gasped as she realized Freya’s sword was a sharpened column of pure crystal, without any hint of color. Now the crystal was becoming black like shiny onyx. The flames shot up as Freya raised her sword, and her weapon absorbed all the flames in the circles around her. She screamed something in a foreign language and the flames leaped from her sword to the sky in one continuous stream.

The line of fire paused in its rampage, then were sucked upwards in the wake of the circle fires. Sisi watched them cling to the rocks and grasses with desperate abandon, but they were forced to let go of their hold. The bank of dark clouds overhead seemed to absorb the roaring destruction without hesitation. Then finally, the last of the fire was sucked into the vacuum, and an ear-splitting shriek echoed over the mountains.

Freya collapsed onto her knees, and lost her hold on her sword. Her companions rushed forward to help her. One of the brown-haired warriors cried a curse, then ripped her helmet from her head, while two others pounded her chest. She lay limp within their arms, her eyes closed, her face slack, and sweat dripping from her forehead to soak into her hair.

In the chaos, no one noticed the sword. The crystal blade wasn’t the colorless crystal, or the black onyx, but now glowed a dark green. The sword slid itself closer to Freya’s limp right hand, then was still. Sisi realized that the traitor wasn’t Freya, but the sword in her possession.

Elisando realized it at the same time. It’s the sword! It’s been spying on us the entire time! That’s what Drianeh wanted to tell us. But why wouldn’t Freya tell us?

“Maybe she’s trying. She’s fighting the spell, but it’s draining her,” Sisi said. “She’s been trying to tell us, but she must be under some sort of compulsion or spell to keep her in control. Why are we seeing this, Elisando? Why are we the only ones who see it?”

Come, Sisi, we must find our version of Freya, before it’s too late! Elisando beat his powerful wings, and they left the scene. Lightning flashed again among the mountains, and he headed straight for it. It wrapped itself around them, enfolded them, and…

…they ended up in another bank of clouds, but these were gray, instead of black, and they were illuminated in silver from below. The air was slightly warmer and smelled of fresh rain. Air and Water…

“Sisi!” Samuel yelled. “Over here!”

She sighed in relief as he reined Twain in beside her. Samuel’s face was alight with excitement that she picked up immediately. It almost made her forget the horrible revelation she and Elisando had made. “Samuel, where’s Freya?”

“She’s found the Third Key! Come on, she’s waiting for us!” Twain threw his head in dismay and growled low in his throat. Samuel frowned and asked, “What is it, boy?”
He fell silent as Twain relayed what Elisando had just sent him. His mouth fell open as he looked as Sisi and she nodded.

“ I knew there was something strange,” he muttered. “Gan Zhou Bei had also seen something, but thought it was just minor.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s with Freya; he wanted to keep a close eye on her. Now that we know exactly what it is—“ He broke off and indicated the direction with his chin, and they took off.

The gray clouds gathered close around them, so close that Twain and Elisando had to literally fly wingtip to wingtip. Sisi burned the mist ahead of them until they saw the shadows of Aseoguard and Fu Lei deep within the clouds. Gan Zhou Bei was pointing at a jagged crystal monolith that sparkled as Sisi’s light struck it. Blues and purples swirled from deep within it, deepening to maroon and dark green near the tip, and at the apex was the image of the strangely-shaped key, deep within the crystal.

“It is embedded so deeply that it is difficult to remove,” Gan Zhou Bei said. “Fu Ling and I tried to crack the monolith, vibrate it to pieces, but it did not work. Then Freya and I tried to hurl solids at it to wear it away, and it did not work. Yak hooves, this is hard material indeed!”

“Will Fire melt it?” Freya asked, her eyes still glued to the Key above them.

“I can try.” Sisi raised her hands and called on her First Element and brought the warmth from the pit of her gut, raised it to her heart, then extended the energy from her fingers in a red-orange stream. It drilled into the monolith, causing it to change into a single pillar of maroon. Yet there wasn’t even a dent in its surface.

“Nope, Fire won’t do it, either.” Samuel reached out and laid a palm on the monolith. “That thing’s harder than the largest diamond in the universe.”

“Even the toughest armor has one weak spot,” Gan Zhou Bei interjected. He pressed his nose to the surface, then muttered something in his language. Sisi frowned and drew her Vision inward, piggybacking it onto Elisando’s Vision. “Sisi, do you see? The inside is webbed with cracks!”

No, not cracks, Elisando said. The whole structure is made of thin planes of this material, with each edge set tightly against each other. I cannot see how they are joined; they must fit so well that even I, in Spirit Form, would not be able to slip between them.

Samuel whistled in awe. “That’s one hell of a piece of engineering right there.”

“Now, how do we destroy it?” asked Gan Zhou Bei.

Freya had taken Asorguard to the top of the structure, where the Key was buried. Sisi directed Elisando to do the same. Freya circled the pointed top, but that was as solidly built as the rest of it. Her mouth twitched as she contemplated her options. Sisi opened her mouth to speak, but Freya beat her to it.

“You saw my story in the Lower Levels. I saved my people, at a price.” She drew out the enchanted sword and studied its emerald hue. “My companions thought I had died, and had me on my funeral pyre, and the flames were licking my skin, when Asorguard came and took me away, to Valhalla, I thought. Of course, it was here.”

“You can fight them, Freya,” Sisi told her. “You’re almost free of them.”

“Each time I attempt, they drain me more and more. Soon, I will be no more. I will waste away like an invalid, not like a warrior.” Her voice was quiet but bitter. “Can you hear them? They want me to strike you down, Sisi, then turn on Samuel and Gan Zhou Bei, then shatter the structure and retrieve the Key for the Void.”

“Then why don’t you do it?” Sisi’s voice was just as quiet. “I’m here, Elisando’s here, we know your secret. Why are you telling me this, as opposed to just surprising me and killing me on the spot.”

Freya laughed, but it was hoarse with strain. It was enough to attract the others’ attention, and Samuel and Gan Zhou Bei came on opposite sides, enclosing Freya . Sisi raised a hand to stop them from attacking her; Gan Zhou Bei growled something else and drew his javelin from his saddle-sheath, while Samuel watched with a grim expression.

“You are my friends, and I live by the code I sworn, long ago.” Tears danced on her long lashes and her arm reached for the sword slung to her back. “It tells me that I should be strong and noble and fight…for…good.”

The clouds rumbled in response, and the faintest hint of lightning touched the sky. The winds picked up as Freya lifted the emerald blade and this time, they all could see the faint images of demons dancing within the sword. Gan Zhou Bei’s hand tightened on the javelin, while Samuel prepared to knock her out of the way with a controlled burst of water. Sisi and Elisando hovered there, close by, but did nothing. Gan Zhou Bei raised his eyebrows in a silent question; Sisi only shook her head slightly.

“I should be strong,” Freya repeated, as if it was her only lifeline to sanity. She closed her eyes and brought the sword close to her face in a salute. “I should be strong and noble. It is the very definition of a Valkyrie, but the Demons of the Void made my entire life a lie. Nothing but a lie!”

Rage suffused her face and she whipped the sword around her. “But now I redeem myself, and choose the side of good…forever!” With reflexes faster than even Sisi’s or Gan Zhou Bei’s, she twisted around and brought the blade down upon the tip of the crystal monolith. It rang with the purity of a church bell and echoed over the clouds.

Nothing happened. The wind died and even the clouds were still.

Then there was a mighty crack, and a faint seam appeared, a vertical line along the monolith’s length, from top to bottom. It spread outward like a sunburst, along the tightly joined planes, disrupting the monolith’s delicate balance. Then the skies answered with a resounding shriek. Sisi clapped her hands over her ears; the pure force struck Gan Zhou Bei and he wavered and fell. Fu Ling dove after her fallen Ranger, and both of them disappeared through a gray cloudbank.

Samuel released his tidal wave, but aimed it not at Freya, but the green spirits that rose from the sword. Before any of the demons could turn towards the monolith, the tsunami washed over them and swept them away. The hurricane-force gales began again, radiating out from Freya and beating the swarm of Void demons back. As Sisi watched in horror, Freya’s hair turned a brilliant white, and her face was leached of all color. The blue eyes grew sunken in a withered face and her nails grew into long claws. Aseoguard threw back her head and whinnied a challenge, and the Air Dragon combined what was left of her powers with her Ranger’s. Aseoguard began to fade, as if the very winds were taking her existence with them.

Sisi, look at the horizon! They’re coming!

Sisi’s head snapped up at Elisando’s abrupt warning, and her heart sank as a long line of Rangers of the Void approached from all around them, a black, buzzing fog of despair and death. There must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of the invaders; far too many for Sisi and the others to handle by themselves.

“And here I thought I’d die in bed,” Samuel said, his voice dry. “Well, at least we’ll go out swinging.” He touched the Key he wore around his neck and pulled the chain. “Here, Sisi. You need this. I don’t. Get that Key from the monolith, and go to the Throne of Thinking.”


”Here, Sisi,” said Gan Zhou Bei, as he and Fu Ling reappeared on her far side. The fall had rattled his nerves; the smile he gave her was strained as he gave her his Key. “Go on, Freya cannot hold them off forever, and we must be ready.” He turned to Samuel and saluted him with his javelin. “It is an honor to fight as your side, Samuel.”

“And yours, Gan Zhou Bei.” Samuel gave her a gentle smile. “Go on, get going. It’ll be all right.”

Sisi hugged him fiercely, then hugged Gan Zhou Bei. She looked up at Freya; the warrior’s face was closed in ecstasy as she poured her final efforts into the tornadoes, but Freya’s shadow was flickering in and out as if she was an insubstantial ghost. Gan Zhou Bei was right; when Freya had finally exhausted her powers, there would be no one to stop the Rangers of the Void’s attack, save him and Samuel.

We go, Sisi! Elisando beat his wings strongly as he approached the monolith. The structure was webbed with ridges and chips, but it was holding together…just barely. The very tip, which housed the Third Key, had taken a terrific beating, but it still held. Elisando wasted no time; he swung his enormous spined tail and struck the apex straight on. It shattered, the pieces tumbling into space, and the Third Key jumped from its niche in the monolith into Sisi’s hand.

At that moment, a bright light enveloped Freya and blinded everyone, including the Rangers of the Void. When the light dimmed, empty air filled where Freya had been. There was no sign of the Air Ranger or her Dragon.

The Rangers of the Void howled in triumph. Their forces began to move forward towards Samuel and Gan Zhou Bei, who stood their ground between the Void and the monolith. Gan Zhou Bei roared and kicked Fu Ling into high speed, screaming a battle cry as he headed for the front ranks. Samuel drew a cloud of cold mist around the Rangers of the Void, distracting and dispersing their initial attack. But there were more, far more than Samuel could hold.

Then an overpowering roar enveloped the sounds of the Rangers’ attack. It paralyzed them for a brief moment as they looked around for its source. Sisi felt a distinct thrill from Elisando as four bright Portals materialized, high above them in all four directions, and Dragons of all shapes, sizes and colors poured out of them. The Rangers of the Void wheeled their Dragons around to face this new invasion.

Posted 149 weeks ago


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